Writing in today's Huffington Post, Council Leader Simon Letts outlines exactly why the elections on May 5th are so important for the future prosperity of Southampton and its residents.
Local government matters. With the news dominated by the forthcoming EU referendum, crucial local elections on 5th May are in danger of being overlooked. Decisions taken at a local level impact us all; they shape the communities we live in, the transport we use, the housing that is built and the education and jobs we need. But since George Osborne was handed the keys to the Treasury, funding for local government has been cut by an estimated 40 per cent. Across the country, services are being salami-sliced and pressured to provide more with much less.
When Labour took control of Southampton in 2012, we inherited a city that had suffered under a chaotic Tory administration. An industrial dispute had left millions of bin bags rotting in the streets and employee relations were described as ‘the worst in local government’. Meanwhile, increasingly draconian cuts passed down to local areas from Westminster had been waved through.
Southampton is a snapshot of modern Britain. It is a diverse, confident city with a strong sense of identity. Its population is growing and people are living longer. However, like many cities that have seen a decline in their manufacturing sector, there are still significant levels of poverty. It is places like Southampton that have been hit hardest by cuts; 20 minutes up the M3, wealthy Winchester has had a much smaller funding reduction.
The question for Labour councils has been how to achieve all the things we believe in – reducing inequality, helping communities to flourish, providing opportunity and security for both young and old, making our cities places where businesses can thrive – against this backdrop of austerity.
Our primary focus has been the economy. We have got Southampton moving and the progress is there for all to see; cranes dominate the skyline and new developments shoot up as brownfield and waterfront sites are redeveloped. In order to tackle gaps in educational attainment and to make sure people in Southampton can fill the jobs being created, we have focused on skills, working with local business to create 6,600 new apprenticeships over four years.
Through innovation we have generated new sources of income to mitigate the cuts. We have dramatically reduced the number of buildings we occupy and rented some out. We have introduced an additional licensing scheme for Houses of Multiple Occupation which has driven up the quality of the private rented sector and begun to address the problems faced by areas where large swathes of housing are rented out. We have created a late night levy which raises funds for both the city’s thriving late-night economy and the police. All these ideas not only generate income, but also improve and protect the communities that are the lifeblood of any city.
Where services are centred on much-loved but expensive buildings we have sought better options. Youth services in the inner city are now run by a charity in a former council building; a suburban pool that was run at a loss is now a successful community enterprise; several of our libraries are about to start a new life led by local groups. The BBC recently revealed that almost 8,000 libraries have closed across the UK in the last six years: in Southampton we have kept every library open.
Perhaps our crowning achievement has been to keep all of our Sure Start Children’s Centres open while neighbouring Tory authorities seek to close theirs. Without prudent handling of the city’s finances this would not have been possible, but in a city with 25 per cent child poverty this is a priority that Labour has been clear should never be compromised on.
By recognising the economic realities facing us in 2016, we have been able to prioritise, innovate and promote the city unashamedly in terms of investment. Our record - and the record of Labour councils across the country over the last few years - shows that a vote for Labour on May 5th is a vote for local Government that will stand up for people, not stand by.