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A Borough of Philistines

February 24, 2011

The budget for 2001-12 has been passed at Full Council. It has been a difficult budget which councillors from all political parties together with officers had worked on for more than 18 months knowing that the Council had to make ten of millions of savings in future years.

Therefore it was appropriate that we all supported the budget proposals particularly because the new Labour administration didn’t really make any real changes to the original consultation put forward in November by the Lib Dem/Tory coalition Council.

The only change the new Labour leader achieved is to buy time for some tough decisions to be made at a later stage. That is of course politically clever but expensive, because the council has to borrow more money to bridge the gap if the savings are not made in time.

The Lib Dem group put forward three amendments to yesterday’s budget, all of them were defeated; a pity because two of them would have meant extra money for front line services like community centres. It was surprising that Labour wasn’t supporting those amendments.

However the real betrayal was that the Labour party didn’t support our amendment to save the Council’s Arts and Heritage Service, although the Labour leader Colin Lambert had promised privately that he would look favourably at an amendment.

Arts and Heritage services are provided on behalf of the council by Link4Life, which is an arms length charity set up some years ago, mainly to avoid VAT charges.  This tax technicality allows Link4Life to have more money to invest in leisure services than if the service was run directly by the council. We have seen big improvements in our sports provision since Link4Life took over, backed by massive capital investment agreed by the Lib Dem administration in 2007.

But the Arts and Heritage service has always been the Cinderella of Link4Life’s operation. Never has this become more obvious than now. Like all other services Link4Life was asked to cut 25% from their budget. 80% of those savings were heaped on the Arts and Heritage service, none on the sports service and the rest on so called neighbourhood services which also provide sports sessions.  Link4Life claims they are cutting 64% from the sprots budget and 36% from the Arts and Heritage budget but this is imply an accounting trick. The cuts to the sports budget can be off-set against increased entry charges and membership fees to sports centres and swimming pools. The Arts and Heritage service does’t generate income to off- set cuts because the entry to our galleries is free and it doesn’t cost to visit the Tourist Information centre.

The Lib Dems firmly believe that this is the end of Art and Heritage in our Borough.  Touchstones Gallery opening hours are now much reduced, there will be no more educational support to schools and no more visits to the Gallery for school children. The Tourist information centre will close. There will be no more public access to our stores, housing a large number of items which make up our borough’s history. There will be no more scope for changing exhibitions and no more arts events supported by the Council.

All the Liberal Democrat group asked for was for Link4Life to make savings fairly and proportionately across the board. In order to keep the Arts and Heritage service on a minimal budget Link4Life would have had to give up a few coaching sessions that wouldn’t make or break our sports provision.

But to no avail.

We will now be the first council to be a Borough of Philistines unable to value and appreciate the huge contribution that the creative arts and our heritage make to people’s lives. We will all be the poorer for it!!

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