On Wednesday night I attended the Evington consultation meeting held at the Coleman Neighbourhood Centre during which Leicester city council outlined their plans to close a local community centre and various housing association offices. The Council, as always, came well-prepared for the meeting with a complement of nine council officers and assistant mayor Andy Connelly in attendance to defend the indefensible to a dozen or so members of the public.
The council officers began the proceedings by explaining their broader plans to work with groups to “reduce the Council’s physical footprint” had been well-received, with community engagement being “very successful and helpful so far.” Apparently “other communities say” that the Council’s cost-cutting exercise “is the smart way to deliver changes.” The officers went on to reassure the meeting that their “Transforming Neighbourhood Services” scheme was “not about imposing anything but is about having a honest conversation.”
Of course no mention was made by the council officers of the massive community campaign that is being waged by the residents of the Rushey Mead community who have organised countless public protests against the closure of community facilities in their part of the city.
The Council may well say that they would “like to explore different alternatives to the proposals” they have put forward, but in reality if a communities plans differ substantially from the Council’s ideas then they will be ignored.
The first member of the public to speak at the meeting raised a fundamental criticism of the consultation process itself. He said that he and a number of other people had attended the Council’s recent “focus group” on the proposed cuts, but despite leaving his email address had never heard back from the Council. In fact he pointed out that he had only found out about the latest consultation meeting because he had read about it in the Leicester Mercury.
The next person to make a contribution also raised valid criticisms of the Council. She drew attention to the poor way in which the consultation had been advertised to the public, and asked why the Council had not made use of local community newsletters like the Evington Echo to bring their plans to the public’s attention. Another person then followed-on by pointing out that the “consultation was going beautifully [pointing to the nice glossy leaflet produced by the Council] but not effectively.”
From the back of the room criticism was then raised about problems associated with general Council cuts that had meant that the grass and bushes on the local estate were no longer being cut regularly. She said when she first came to live in the area “people were dying to move here but now they are dying to move away.” Her view of the ongoing consultation on the planned closure of essential community services was accurate and to the point, it was “daft.”
The same lady later asked Andy Connelly “why aren’t any of the councillors for this ward here?” (The three Labour councillors who were missing were Ratilal Govind, Deepak Bajaj, and Sue Hunter.) Cllr Connelly responded by saying “I can’t answer that.” Someone else from the audience then chipped in that their absence might be related to the fact that Coronation St is on, and Connelly came back by saying, “I will be raising [their absence] with them.”
Other important concerns raised at the meeting included the fact that the Council was making plans for the “disposal” of the Rowlatts Hill Neighbourhood Housing Office, which is situated immediately next to the Coleman Neigbourhood Centre. This point was particularly pertinent because, as was pointed out, the Housing Office has its own carpark while the Neigbourhood Centre does not. This means that if the Housing Office was sold-off then elderly people with severe mobility issues would find it difficult (if not impossible) to continue using the Coleman Neigbourhood Centre. The Council’s stock answer was, yes, the issue of parking “does need to be taken into account.”
Towards the end of the meeting I responded to the earlier comment that the Council would “like to explore different alternatives to the proposals”. I raised the idea that the Council should be opposing Tory austerity by promising to close no community centres; something that our Labour-led Council could do right now by adopting the legal no-cuts budget strategy that was proposed by UNISON city branch earlier this year. Unfortunately the woman sitting next to me took offence at the political nature of my contribution and shouted me down before I could finish my contribution, saying that political comments were not welcome at the meeting.
Following on from this, in order to avoid a discussion about politics Cllr Connelly decided not to respond to the political arguments I directed at him. But when responding to a subsequent question from someone else he began by saying “I am not making a political point,” but then corrected himself and continued “but I guess it is a political point…”
During his own political contribution Cllr Connelly noted that it was difficult to keep services running as a result of Tory cuts, but assured the meeting that the Council are opposed to austerity and that he does personally support Jeremy Corbyn’s fight against austerity. This apparent opposition to austerity voiced by Connelly however remains to be seen in practice.
Of course it remains within our Council’s political power to refuse to carry out further cuts to local services, but to date they have refused to ask their finance officers to investigate how this might be done. This needs to change if our Labour councillors are serious about helping a Labour government come to power later this year!
For details of UNISON’s no-cuts proposal see here http://www.cabinet.leicester.gov.uk:8071/documents/s82534/No%20Cuts%20Budget%20for%20City%20prepared%20for%20Unison.pdf