09:21 Thursday 10th February 2011
Andy Harper Show BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
ANDY HARPER: Over 90 prominent Liberal Democrat councillors, including the Leaders of 18 local authorities, have criticised the scale and pace of the cuts being implemented by the Coalition Government. In a letter to The Times, they say the spending reductions are too big, and are being implemented too quickly. One of the signatories is Cambridge City Council Leader Sian Reid. (TAPE)
SIAN REID: I think Eric Pickles has upset local councils throughout the land, of all colours really, through his approach. Local authorities recognise that there is just a massive national debt, and we are really keen to play our part constructively in cutting it. But Eric Pickles has really front-loaded the cuts onto councils, so they’re facing across the country very heavy cuts in the first year of these programmes. And it’s important in local authorities that we don’t just swing the axe in a blunt way, that we think about our savings, service by service, intelligently, thoughtfully, consult with people, so that we can respect what communities need, and not deliver blows to them right at the start.(LIVE)
ANDY HARPER: Councillor Sian Reid speaking on our Cambridgeshire Breakfast Show earlier today. So, are the cracks beginning to show in the Coalition? Liberal Democrat County Councillor Geoff Heathcock, who represents Queen Edith’s ward, and he has been an outspoken critic of the cuts. Geoff, good morning to you.
GEOFF HEATHCOCK: Morning to you Andy.
ANDY HARPER: .. You have been an outspoken critic of the cuts, and the way they’ve been implemented. But you are, and have been for some time, a member of the Liberal Democrat Party. But as I was saying earlier on, to both of our Breakfast presenters, the Liberal Democrats are nothing if not a grass roots party. That has been their strength for so many years. And there must be many good people very worried.
GEOFF HEATHCOCK: I think it goes beyond being worried, frankly Andy. I think frankly many of us have tinkered on the verge in recent months of actually calling into question our membership of the party. Because I didn’t get elected to serve the people of Queen Edith’s to actually decimate public services, or indeed to take services away from those who are extremely vulnerable, and not in a position to stand up and fight their corner. And I don’t see, and I’m with Sian and indeed others of my colleagues on this, that whilst we understand, of course we understand, we live in the real world. We know there is a deficit that’s got to be dealt with. But where the axe is falling, and the way in which the axe is being applied, both at County and at other levels of local government in particular, I’m afraid is decimation. It is salami slicing of a sort that we have never experienced in recent history. And it will affect real people. And at the end of the day, people like me are here to look after and to protect as far as I’m able, real people and vulnerable people who need assistance of all sorts. Not just in the health and social care field, but in the emergency services, which is another area in which I have concern and interest, about what is likely to be coming for both fire and police in the coming months. That was not what I was put there to do. And therefore I think we owe it to our electorates, to our individual constituents, to stand up and be counted, and to say no, this is far far too severe. There has to be a better, more constructive, and compassionate way of dealing with this problem.
ANDY HARPER: Now we know therefore the opinions of many local councillors. And there’ll be thousands across the country who probably take the same view as you. And one assumes that there are many members of the Government, or Liberal Democrat MPs, who must feel the same way. But does that make us think that they’re not having much of an influence on Government policy?
GEOFF HEATHCOCK: Well it’s very difficult of course to know, certainly for people like you and I, to actually know what influence Ministers are having. Because obviously those discussions go on behind closed doors. There isn’t clearly I guess time, more than not, for Ministers to have individual discussions with rank and file like me, more’s the pity. But there we are. That’s the realities of life. So that I imagine, certainly looking at a number of fairly high profile, what might otherwise be called U-turns in recent weeks, it is clear that there is significant friction and tension between some of our Ministers and some of the Conservative Ministers. And in many cases that obviously will lead to reviews or policies being dropped. Now that’s no bad thing, because it doesn’t mean to say that one side rather than the other side has got any more ability to put in wisdom than the other side. But I think there has to be a coming together, and an understanding, and a receipt of the messages. I think this is the clear frustration that we have on the shop floor, if I can put it that way, that our leadership needs to be listening much much more than is evident at the moment to the grass roots, to the grass roots workers, the councillors, to ordinary residents who are going to be impacted by some of the decisions that are coming around the corner. And if they don’t, what will happen, it may not happen straight away, but it will happen, over a period of time, there will be haemorrhaging not only of membership, but there’ll be haemorrhaging of people like me who will say, no, enough is enough. We’re not putting up with this any longer. And clearly then we’ll have to make decisions about our future as members of the party.
ANDY HARPER: You see, I suppose, the Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament will be thinking, well, we’ve got four years to put this right, and hopefully ride out the storm. But for people seeking election in local government positions in the next twelve months, they haven’t got that luxury of riding out the storm, have they? People are going to be going to the polling booths very shortly.
GEOFF HEATHCOCK: Absolutely. And I think the fear that many of us have, and I think sadly it will be a very real fear, is that a significant number of very good people .. those that are lazy frankly, I’ve always said, and I’ve said it publicly and privately, so I’m saying nothing different than I’d say anywhere else, if you’re lazy, you’re not doing the job you were elected to do, then you deserve to be given the proverbial kick up the backside, and you lose your seat. And you deserve to lose your seat. But what worries me is that there will be lots of very hard-working, genuine people, who do put in a tremendous amount of work for their local communities, who on May 5th will lose their seats, for one reason and one reason only, that they happen to be wearing, on that particular day, the wrong colour badge. Nothing to do with what they’ve not done locally, but the fact that they are seen to be part of a national government that is inflicting a lot of damage and a lot of pain.
ANDY HARPER: So finally Geoff, would you like to see the Liberal Democrats in Parliament withdraw from the Coalition? Is this the only way really for them to distance themselves from what’s going on across the country?
GEOFF HEATHCOCK: Yes I do. And I have been unhappy since the very early days of the Coalition, because I frankly don’t see very many examples of where it’s actually benefited us, to be part of this particular administration, save one, and it’s the only one I can think of, which is that, yes, things are being done from April to help the very low income people to have a much better tax allowance. But that will be more than put right, if you like, in the negative, by increases in fuel tax, increases in VAT. So they giveth on the one hand. They taketh on the other hand. But as far as the future of the Coalition Government is concerned, I’m afraid I’m a purist when it comes to this, in saying, I don’t see anything but an awful lot of negativity in the next few years. Lots of damaging decisions, and therefore lots of damage to lots of individuals. And therefore, I personally would prefer at an appropriate moment that we actually said to the Prime Minister, sorry, this has gone too far, we can no longer support this. And we walk away. I don’t think there’s any disgrace in that at all, because we would have tried it. It hasn’t worked as well as perhaps others might have thought it would. And we continue to fight as we’ve always fought, over many many decades, for local people and local communities.
ANDY HARPER: Geoff, as ever, good to talk to you. Thank you very much this morning.
GEOFF HEATHCOCK: Pleasure.
ANDY HARPER: That’s Cllr Geoff Heathcock, a Liberal Democrat County Councillor representing Queen Edith’s ward in Cambridge.