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Leader of the Council gives budget speech

Published: 9th February 2021 15:34
Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Leader of Portsmouth City Council, today gave a speech to full council, introducing his administration's proposed budget.

The speech in full is as follows:

My Lord Mayor,

In this speech I will set out some of the work that the Lib Dem administration has been doing over the last year, and the budget proposals set out in the paperwork for today's meeting.

I'd like to start with my usual thanks. Firstly to the finance team at the City Council - Chris Ward and Julian Pike - who have worked hard to turn in a budget that is sensible and prudent, but also one facing many less cuts than so many councils. I'd also like to put on record my thanks to all members of the Cabinet who have worked so hard over this year and achieved so much in such difficult times. Without the hard work and dedication of the staff who work for the city council, none of the decisions we make as councillors would have been implemented. The staff at the city council have worked tirelessly for local residents during this pandemic and I will take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to each and every one of them for their dedication, hard work and professionalism.

But finally I need to put on record my thanks to Steve Pitt. Ladies and Gentlemen I have to confess to a sin. The sin of plagiarism. Steve's speech to the "Shaping" conference a couple of weeks ago went down so well, that I've stolen lots of it. My apologies to anyone who was there.

My Lord Mayor. When the Lib Dems returned to the administration of this council we did so with three core aims. That we would listen to local residents, that we would care for the most vulnerable and that we would run the city council finances in a competent way. There is always more to do, but it is absolutely clear that we have achieved this, and my thanks to every member of the administration for the part they have played in this. Whilst the Government has failed to provide the financial support councils need, and have forced cuts on councils there are two budget figures I think are crucial.

The First is in Children's Families and Education. Over the last three years we have grown the budget by 28%, a £7m pound growth to look after the children in this city that need support. Contrast this with what took place under the Conservative administration that between the budgets they proposed in 2015 to the one they proposed in 2018 saw this budget cut.

There is a similar picture in Health, Wellbeing and Social Care. Under this administration we have seen a growth in the budget from £41.7m to £49.4m a growth of 18.5% in 3 years, an increase of over £7.5m. Yet in the three years of the Conservative administration between 2015 and 2018 they did increase the budget, but only just £68,300, less than the rate of inflation.

I'm really proud that we have turned this around. Investing in support to the most vulnerable is at the core of our values. We as Lib Dems opposed and voted against this, but these real terms cuts to these services were the product of a Conservative administration voted in and supported by the votes of Conservative councillors, Labour councillors and UKIP councillors.

For the last 17 years I have delivered the budget speech on behalf of the Lib Dem group. This speech may be my last in this capacity so I may want to look back a little.

Covid19 has had an enormous impact on all of our lives. Many of us have had to get used to the new normal of working at home, used to spending large parts of our days on Zoom or Teams and trying hard to make sure that we continue to live our lives as best we can.

We have faced varying degrees of challenge, some of us have had to overcome the virus, some have had to support family members through it and very sadly, some of us have lost loved ones. The depth of the tragedy is not yet fully known and we still have difficult times ahead. Throughout this crisis, our thoughts have been with those at risk, those on the front line and those who have lost their lives.

Through it all, there have been constant reasons to be proud of our city. Our health and care workers have been and continue to be our heroes and our social care teams both public and private have finally had the recognition they have always deserved for the amazing work they do, always putting people first. I salute every single key worker who has taken personal risk to support our community through the crisis........

Our volunteers, coordinated by The Hive, under the leadership of Lou Wilders and Father Bob, have achieved incredible things. They have given up huge amounts of their time to support our most vulnerable residents. Their contribution to our city has been greater than ever before and we owe them a huge debt of thanks.

Local businesses stepped up to offer to cook meals, donate PPE, help with deliveries and donate supplies. So many of them have been ready and willing to go above and beyond to help their communities and this is something each and every one of them should be hugely proud of. Thank you.

Individuals have joined together to forge online communities and local support groups, often cooking a meal for a neighbour or fetching a prescription, or just being there for their friends and neighbours. Our city has grown stronger as a result and the myth that there is no society has been well and truly busted.....

The Council had to adapt quickly to the task in front of it and I am proud of all of the officers from the cleaners and the parks crew to the team leaders and directors, for the way that they have gone above and beyond to support our communities through the pandemic........

We have conducted resident research and the overwhelming majority of residents have said that they trust the Council as a reliable source of information, far more so than government, and that is a testament to all of the work that has gone into keeping everyone informed and updated, often in challenging circumstances, as we have found our way through the crisis.

We made a very important decision early on in the crisis and it is one that we are very proud of. We knew that the food banks were under pressure due to panic buying limiting people's ability to donate when supplies were rationed by supermarkets and we stepped straight in to fund The Hive to guarantee that food supplies could be maintained. In the weeks that followed, through council, donation and sponsorship, no one who needed support was turned away. The city came together to support its most vulnerable in their time of need and this is something we will never forget. That support continues to this day.

We got 'everyone in', renting hotels to give shelter to our homeless community, something that has had a lasting positive impact and has evolved into the Council deciding to purchase 3 buildings to provide stable temporary accommodation to our homeless community until we can help and support them to move on to long term homes, offering counselling and support to help them rebuild their lives.

We stepped in when government failed to act and ensured meal vouchers would be available at Christmas and over the February half term for all children on free school meals. We gave grants to help support our early years providers and got them included in the Covid testing regime.

We stepped in quickly to set up the region's first Business Support Line. The team have supported thousands of local businesses with advice on the various grants and loans, staffing the phones from 7am to 7pm and ensuring that well over £40 million got to those businesses who needed that help so badly.

We have continued to operate every council service we possibly could and will continue to do so. My thanks again to all of our staff and all of those across our city who are helping Portsmouth to navigate this awful crisis, together and with such determination and commitment.

Despite 2020 being a year which so many of us have so many reasons to want to forget, it did also deliver some positives, some of which I have already described.

What I truly hope will be the lasting legacy is the strength of relationships forged with the Council's partners.

I'd like to highlight the amazing work achieved by the partnership between Shaping, CrowdfunderUK and the Council, helping local businesses, many of whom had fallen through the cracks of government support, helping 20 of them to complete their fundraising projects and survive to thrive. This Pay it Forward Scheme was one of only 4 Council led schemes in the UK focused on combatting the impact of Covid 19 on business and seeing the success of the Portsmouth scheme, the Solent LEP launched their own version of the scheme, helping more businesses across the region and in Portsmouth.

We also helped to set up the Digital Enablement programme to get digital devices to those who are isolated and to school children who don't have access to learning through digital platforms at home.

This council has pioneered the work to get Covid testing into all nurseries and childminding locations in the city, so staff here are included in the testing regime. Our recognition of the pressures on education show an investment, this year, of £3.5m in building new classrooms for children with special educational needs.

One emerging project we are passionate about is the development of the Council's Social Value policy which will be more ambitious and wider reaching than those developed by Preston and Salford. I want everyone to be talking about the Portsmouth Model in years to come.

Looking ahead, other critical work has continued apace. Jane Lamer and her team have continued to provide help and support to get people back into work throughout the pandemic and are now working on the Job Entry Targeted Support Scheme (JETs) , which went live in October, helping adults affected by Covid and adding to the established work and health programme, which helps the long term unemployed back to work. Jane also leads on the KickStart programme, coordinating a number of organisations to offer paid work to young people for 6 month placements. The Council is already committed to over 50 Kickstarters across its departments and will be paying them the Real Living Wage, as laid down by the Living Wage Foundation, topping up the government funded payments.

The team are working closely with DWP, with Shaping and with skills providers to make sure that the Portsmouth skills and workforce strategy published in November is a tool to support businesses and individuals as we look towards recovery.

One of the impacts of Covid has been the acceleration in the decline of high street retail, primarily impacting on long-established chains whose model no longer works in the age of online shopping. However, The Council are determined to do all we can to influence change and evolution on our high streets and levering in external funding is essential to that.

Having initially planned to announce the awards in September, the government finally revealed the beneficiaries of their Future High Streets fund on Boxing Day. Portsmouth received 66% of the amount we had bid for which meant £3.1m for Commercial Road and £3.8m for Fratton Road. In Fratton, we are working with building owners to purchase and redevelop older retail space to improve the local shopping experience on the ground floors as well as enabling community use, office space and affordable housing above. There will also be other improvements to the public space on Fratton Road.

In Commercial Rd, we will now follow on from recent improvements which have seen the relocation of the market by working with building owners to purchase and redevelop empty retail space, keeping a retail or activity space on the ground floor and utilising the upper floors for office space and affordable housing.

More details on both of these schemes in the weeks and months ahead.

I also want to let you know that we have a bid in to the European Regional Development Fund to open a co-working space in the city centre dedicated to growing and supporting Small and Medium Sized Enterprises and we are hoping that we are successful so that we can provide a great, modern space and create new jobs.

In the future, we need our high streets to be about far more than just shops. I am delighted by the plans which are progressing in Southsea to bring both the former Debenhams and former Knight & Lee sites back into use, with plans for a health hub, independent retail, a 4 Star hotel, and food & beverage offers all keeping those ground floors active and helping to drive footfall to the existing shops. New housing on the upper floors of the Debenhams site will bring more residents into the heart of Southsea and further help to support local retail. There are towns and cities across the UK which are looking on in envy that such huge private investment has come to Southsea so soon after the stores closed and I look forward to seeing the results of the projects led by National Regional and That Group.

Our Council teams have worked hard through our Re-opening High Streets project to support businesses across the city and their work in Palmerston Rd South over the summer has proved a great success and local businesses have worked with the Council and each other both here and on Castle Road.

We were all delighted by the news that Portsmouth was announced as the most entrepreneurial city in the Instant Offices Report 2020, something later mirrored in other reports, showing a 33% increase in new businesses being launched. We also recently received the updated Centre for Cities report showing that of 63 cities in the UK, Portsmouth has the 17th strongest economy - 3 places above Southampton and demonstrating that our city has, so far at least, proved to be resilient during these difficult times. Before the pandemic we were seeing one of the top rates of GVA growth in the country and we hope that all of our efforts to protect local firms will leave us well-placed to recover quickly and get back to where we were last March.

I'm proud that Portsmouth City Council has decided to turn its back on the very lowest pay and it now pays the Real Living Wage. Our commitment is to embed this in the city council so that not only do our direct employees get the Real Living Wage, but that all our contractors pay the Real Living Wage as well. This means working through all our contracts - as they come up for renewal over the next few years - and make sure everyone working for the council either directly or indirectly receives the Real Living Wage for the work they do for Portsmouth City Council. We could have done this with a additional cuts of £3m from the main council budget, and almost £1m from the councils housing budget. This would have meant major cuts to frontline services that people have told us they value.

We will instead have a plan to do this over time. Work in Housing has shown a route reduce the cost from £900,000 to around £300,000. I hope the same work can reduce the sum needed from the main council budget and that this year Portsmouth becomes the first upper tier council in Hampshire to become an accredited Living Wage Employer.

This is good for people working in low wage jobs, especially in the care sector but it also spreads out to other workers in other sectors in the city, and pushes up the wages of many people who are paid the minimum.

The contrast with our predecessor administration cannot have been greater. In 2014 in the last Lib Dem budget of our previous time in power we put in money to make Portsmouth City Council pay the Real Living Wage. Figures from Natasha Edmunds - the City Council Director of Corporate Resources - show that under the Conservative administration workers on the lowest wages had their wages frozen whilst workers on higher wages got pay rises.

The types of roles impacted were the lowest paid as you would expect, but were also in some of our more critical front line services:

Types of roles:

  • Cleaning operatives
  • Adults Social care - day services for vulnerable adults
  • Residential care for adults and children in various roles (care assistants, housekeepers, cooks)
  • School crossing patrol
  • Passenger assistants
  • Libraries
  • Customer services

The number of staff affected in each year:

  • 2016: 234 staff affected
  • 2017: 257 staff affected

There was a significant difference between the PCC annual salary across a range of roles and the RLW equivalent at the time in 2016 and 2017.

  • Average pay difference 2016: £700
  • Average pay difference 2017: £730

This is something for which the City Council should hang its head in shame.

When we returned to power we reintroduced the Real Living Wage to direct employees, now we will extend it to our contractors as well.

These have been difficult times for the cultural industries and I want to make it clear that our government need to do much more to help protect our live music, visual arts and theatre sectors if they are to survive. We cannot lose these jewels of our economy. Our music and theatre industries are worth billions to the UK each year and are among the very best in the world. Our festivals are global icons. So many freelancers, technicians, actors, artists and musicians have seen their incomes wiped out and have not been able to access the grants system. We will continue to make the case for more help to be given to our creatives and locally we have done all we can to support our venues, including announcing that we will be acquiring the freehold of the New Theatre Royal to ensure it remains a theatre for future generations. We have also helped to support our local attractions through heavily discounted advertising in our Visitor Guide for 2021 and are working with the LEP on plans for a new focus on developing tourism across the region to maximise the new staycation phenomenon being driven by Covid.

Remember, 20,500 local jobs were supported across the cultural, creative, digital and tourism sectors in our city pre-Covid and we need to ensure we do all we can to retain them.

One of the highlights of 2020 was the emergence of Portsmouth Creates, which Steve Pitt has worked hard to help fund and support. I'm sure he will say more about it later. It was his intervention with a call to the managers of the empty Debenham's store in Southsea that saw the creation of a Covid secure We Create market for artists. The feedback from them was that several of them made up the income they had lost through the year, and who will forget the queues of people trying to get in. Thanks Steve, and the whole team at Portsmouth Creates.

Despite all of the pressures of 2020, there are a number of exciting initiatives now making real progress and giving me real hope that we can come out of the pandemic with ambition and optimism.

Health and wellbeing will be a key focus over the next few years and having leisure facilities fit for the 21st Century will be key to ensuring local people can access activities year round. Some of our leisure centres were in an embarrassing state and we are determined that the decade of sticking plasters over the cracks had to end. Austerity had led to ongoing underinvestment, with only essential maintenance taking place and The Pyramids, Eastney Swimming Pool and Wimbledon Park Sports Centre were all either at or near to end of their economic lives. In response, we have repurposed The Pyramids which will open in the spring as a giant adventure play centre for younger families and early teens and the new gym will be the best 5 star gym at 3 star prices in the area. The public have decided that they support combining Wimbledon Park Sports and Eastney Pool into one new centre at Bransbury Park and the Lib Dem team running the Council have worked hard to assemble £10.5m to deliver 2 new pools, gym, sports hall, music studio and community centre , and we expect to secure a further £2m from Sport England.

This year's budget will also see us investing £615,000 in cash and £800,000 in borrowing to support 2 schemes in the city, which between them will leverage in an additional £4m from the Football Foundation to provide new football facilities at Moneyfields and King George V in Cosham.

We are continuing our commitment to enhancing the Southsea Sea Defences by allocating another £200,000 on top of the £200,000 we allocated last year towards art installations, play spaces and much more along our iconic seafront. We will be seeking external funding to help ensure that Southsea's waterfront is reborn and remains as valued by future generations as it has been to all of us.

We are spending £100m buying back former council properties to reallocate to those on our waiting lists and ensure local families have decent homes. This is ground breaking work that other councils are following. We do not have the capacity to build enough council housing for the need, but by building and buying back we are making much more progress than many other councils.

We are investing in our school buildings and in additional places urgently needed for children with special educational needs and we have already increased the Children and Families budget to ensure we are always protecting our most vulnerable young people and this includes a new digital support tool that was launched last week to enhance mental health support in a way that young people themselves have told us they want it to be delivered.

The care that people receive in their own homes and when they need residential care is crucial to the health or residents and the survival of the NHS. This pandemic has shown yet again that the incredibly close working arrangements between the NHS and the City Council here in Portsmouth have borne fruit. When I have talked to paramedics in the city they tell me about the excellent work done to get residents home and out of hospital in Portsmouth, and contrast this with services in Hampshire.

The pandemic has taught us that transmission of the virus out of hospitals and into care homes was devastating. The work to create the Gunwharf unit at Harry Sotnick House has been a key part of breaking that chain of infections and protecting the most vulnerable in society.

This council has had a proud history of investing in the future prosperity of our residents. Over the last few years we have seen investment into the port and into Portico. The decision to invest in Lakeside brought us 120 acres in the city supporting over 4,000 jobs. Our recent decision to buy the Sainsbury's site in the City Centre unlocks development in the city centre and the ability to build the city centre road to reduce air pollution, improve the cycle route into the city and reduce traffic queues.

As a business owner the city council has a long and successful history. But that sometimes means saying no, instead of yes. The citizens of Bristol and Nottingham will each have to pay off the debts of at least £30m flowing from their councillors decision to create companies to enter into the domestic energy supply market. Luckily here the cries of our Conservative and Labour colleagues to do the same thing was ignored and Victory Energy was not allowed to run up these levels of losses. The business case was superficially attractive, and I have to admit even I was taken in by it for a while, but closer examination showed that the finances and business plan just didn't add up. Luckily the people of Portsmouth have been saved from these huge losses, and from the cuts that would have followed. If we had carried on with Victory Energy we be looking here at cuts of £10m a year instead of £1m a year because people were taken in. Instead we have been able to double the number of Community Wardens, and invest in additional CCTV cameras to keep local residents safe.

Finally, I want to turn to the issue of climate change and the climate emergency.

Although the last year has seen a necessary focus on other priorities as we concentrated on keeping the city as safe as possible, work has continued to address the Climate Agenda and will now move forwards again as we hopefully emerge from the shadow of the virus in the coming months.

We have secured funding to make long awaited improvements to the Eastern Road cycle lane, removing a major pinch point and making journeys safer. We secured tens of millions through the Transforming Cities Fund which will improve a number of key junctions across the city, improving safety, traffic flows and most importantly, air quality. These changes will significantly improve bus journey times, so that once people move back on to public transport again, the bus is a more attractive option, reducing car use.

We will be a pilot city for a properly regulated e-scooter trial, which will see us work with government to evaluate how these vehicles can play a key role in reducing future car use.

We plan to invest £1m through the city's capital budget into other schemes which will improve cycling and walking infrastructure.

The successful trial recycling scheme introduced on the Seafront last year, will be expanded and our flagship food waste recycling scheme will double in September to cover two thirds of the city, before completing its city wide rollout in 2022.

We are progressing plans to build our own anaerobic digester to take all of the city's food waste and that of our neighbouring local authorities which will not only create biofuels and fertilisers but will generate an income to support other services. In this budget we are doubling the number of homes offered food waste recycling at home to cover 2/3 of houses in Portsmouth. When this scheme is covered we will be diverting 5,000 tons of food waste a year away from the incinerator and into recycling. To be clear, in Hampshire it is only Lib Dem led councils that provide food waste recycling. No Labour or Conservative led councils do this.

Our council-owned port will emerge from the pandemic determined to become the UK's first carbon neutral port.

We are recognised as one of the country's leading local authorities on renewable energies, recently launching the UK's largest Tesla Powerwall, using cutting edge tech to store energy from our solar arrays and only this week it was revealed that Portsmouth City Council is the largest local authority investor into solar power in the country over the last 6 years, investing almost £5m. The Council's energy team are launching a new initiative to help more people access solar for their homes and only this week secured a further £4m in investment to support the expansion of this project. We have identified almost 20,000 homes in the city that would benefit from solar panels and we will be working with these households to dramatically cut Portsmouth's carbon footprint.

We continue to plant hundreds of new trees across the city's parks and the 50,000 new trees at Horsea Island have taken well and will eventually transform the site into a country park.

We have set aside more money to invest in greening initiatives in the coming year and plan to work in partnership with the city's Climate Action Board to launch a Crowdfunder scheme which will empower local communities to bid for funding from a new fund to deliver greening and environmental improvement schemes across the city.

There is, of course, so much more to do. Portsmouth is an historic city with narrow streets and as an island, solving the big issues such as traffic congestion, which impacts negatively on our air quality, will never be easy but we have to find ways to achieve a big reduction in our dependence on the car if we are to really make an impact. The government imposed Clean Air Scheme which will come into force in the west of the city later this year is a stark reminder that we have to make progress quickly or our economy will suffer along with our health. I urge every business to think of ways they can join our effort and help us to reduce our emissions quickly back to safe levels and beyond. We are all in this together and together we can make a difference. We will also continue to lobby government to support Portsmouth and recognise the unique challenges we face as an island city.

And so, there has been much achieved and there remains much to achieve.

It has been a privilege to be the Council Leader here who has been in the role for the longest. 13 years in total has been a long stint. My thanks to councillors from all parties and groups for the work you have put into making this city a great place to live, to visit and to work in. We may disagree on some things, but on the majority o things we all have a common line of supporting what is best for Portsmouth.

My view has always been that the test of any administration is not in what we say, but in what we do. At times some have sat on the sidelines and lobbed in criticisms, but we have weathered them all and gone on to deliver a huge range of things for the people of this city. The tests we set ourselves was to be a Listening, Caring and Competent City Council.

We have been financially competent. While other councils have gone bust we have been prudent with the council's finances. The Government has not kept to its word to fully protect our council finances, but we have weathered the storm, put aside £11.9m for additional costs of Covid, and yet been able to put aside £3m from underspends last year to make sure there is money for major capital projects next year. Over the last 17 years I have had to make cuts to council budgets under Labour, Conservative and Coalition Governments. We have had to remove over £100m of expenditure, but because of good sensible financial planning the three unitary councils in this area have different savings targets. Here in Lib Dem run Portsmouth the target has been savings of £1m, in Conservative run Isle of Wight the target is cuts of £3.5m and in Labour run Southampton it is cuts of £4m. Good financial management pays dividends

We have listened to residents: Whether it be on the desire to invest more in services for the most vulnerable, to giving parking zones to communities that asked for them, to investment in leisure facilities in Cosham and in Eastney. We have always been open to working with others on this council, and here I would like to record my thanks to Cllr Clair Udy and Cllr Jeanette Smith for their constructive work with us on this budget. Whilst we are unable to accept the amendment as drafted and the potential risks associated with the savings proposals, I am able to give you a commitment that your spending proposals can be accommodated this year. These are:

  • The expansion of the 4US Project for an additional member of staff - £25,000
  • Hive Community Fund (Recovery Project & Mental Health Projects) - £225,000

We would plan to fund these this coming year up to £250,000 from a combination of the use of the remaining sums available in the Voluntary and Community Sector Capacity & Transition Fund, the Leader's Initiatives Budget and the Cabinet Reserve.

The same offer was there for both Labour and Conservative groups, and I'm disappointed this offer was not taken up.

In terms of caring for the most vulnerable in society the list of achievements is long.

  • We've increased the budget for Childrens Services from £30.1m to £38.5m. A 28% increase in just 3 years.
  • We've increased the budget for Adult Social Care and Health from £41.7m to £49.4m and 18.5% increase in the last 3 years.
  • We have kept a Youth and Play service where Hampshire have abolished them, in fact we have been able to extend it.
  • We have brought in the Real Living Wage for our lowest paid workers.
  • We have connected more solar panels than any other council in the country.

This is a record to be proud of. This administration and this budget have shown that we listens to local residents, that we are competent with the public's money and that we care for the most vulnerable. I commend it now, for its record in the past and the promise of more in future years.

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