With district council elections due on May 7th, local politicians are setting out their stalls, hoping to entice the electors with some mouth-watering policies. Rochford Liberal Democrats have a good record over the past few years, and we are confident that the electors will continue to put their trust in us.
Local Tories have chosen to focus on two issues which seem to me to be a little bizarre. The two things they appear to want more than anything else in the world are: (1) payment on exit from Rochford car parks, and (2) no swimming pool in Rayleigh.
Car park charges have been a contentious issue ever since the Tories introduced them when they ran the council. Unfortunately, successive local government grants have been so mean, first under the Tories, now under Labour, that we have to rely on car park income to keep our heads above water.
If the Tories had been far-sighted enough, we could have had payment on exit from the start. But it would be hugely expensive to scrap all the ticket machines and install barriers at this stage. We just don’t have the money. I suppose we have to count our blessings – two years ago the Tories were all for scrapping charges altogether, a course of action which would have left Rochford District bankrupt several times over by now.
The Liberal Democrats are determined to bring life back to our town centres. It won’t be an easy task, after so much neglect in the past. Rayleigh residents have been working for a swimming pool in the town centre for many years, and at last the prize is within our reach. So why are the Tories hell-bent on frustrating the wishes of local people? Are they just trying to outdo Labour, who originally backed our pool plan, but have now changed their minds?
I have been a local councillor for five years, and the two most frequent comments I have heard are: “There are too many cars in our road, and they go too fast,” and “When are you going to do something to attract people back into Rayleigh town centre?”
Well, we’re trying to address both those issues at present. There will always be those who argue for no change – but no change means no improvement, and we’re sure that when the final results are in place, current teething troubles will turn out to be worthwhile.
Meanwhile, we have a timely reminder for all those who have forgotten what it’s like to have Conservatives in control locally. Essex reverts to Tory control on April 1st, when Southend and Thurrock become independent authorities, and local spending from that date has been fixed by the Tories at County Hall.
Parents, young people, and those who receive help from Social Services are starting to count the cost of the Conservatives’ return to power. The County budget, passed in February by just one vote, failed to fund education fully, made deep cuts in the Youth Service, hit voluntary organisations hard and slashed spending on social services by £8 million.
Brownie groups and other voluntary organisations, lower income households with children at school, and vulnerable people who rely on home helps and Meals on Wheels are just some of the groups who will be worse off because of the Tories’ decisions at County Hall.
The Liberal Democrats proposed a budget which would have protected many services from such severe cuts (including £270,000 for discretionary grants and money for voluntary organisations). We would also have spent up to the government’s target for education. In contrast, the Conservatives are spending £3.5 million less on education than the government says it should. Taken with Labour’s imposition of tuition fees, this represents quite a bashing for Essex students of all ages.
I am particularly angry about the abolition of student awards for music, dance and drama. We are denying talented students the chance to excel at what they do best. Many of them need a grant of just £1250 to trigger further funding from the National Lottery. This is less than it costs for a place at the primary school where I teach. A generation of students who would have become the artists of the future are being let down.
With a Labour government and a Tory county council, we’re in for a rough ride over the next few years. Liberal Democrats know that you will only get the public services you pay for. And we’re honest enough to say so.