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Vortex of debt meets the jaws of doom

Vortex of debt meets the jaws of doom

🕔08.Jan 2013

vortexThere can’t be many local authorities in the current economic climate knocking on Whitehall’s door demanding to take on additional responsibilities.

But there again, Birmingham City Council can always be guaranteed on to do the unusual.

So while town halls across the country are pondering how to deliver decent public services with severely restricted budgets, Birmingham’s big idea is to ask Communities Secretary Eric Pickles for the right to “regulate” betting shops.

It seems that bookies are preying on weak-minded Brummies who mistakenly think they can get rich by gambling with the little money they do have, according to Labour councillor Phil Davis.

Picking up on a report in the Guardian newspaper, which revealed that betting outlets in seven of Birmingham’s 10 parliamentary constituencies took £459 million last year, Cllr Davis demanded to know whether the council would lobby Government for the right to control the activities of bookmakers.

Cllr Davis laid it on pretty thick at today’s full council meeting. There were dire consequences from gambling for families already under severe financial strain. Bookmakers were proven purveyors of distress for “individuals, families and communities”, he claimed.

I’m tempted to say it was a racing certainty that this kind of speech would receive enthusiastic applause from the Labour benches, and it certainly did. You could have put money on it.

But Cllr Davis was beaten for superlatives by the cabinet member for social cohesion, John Cotton, who said there was a “clear pattern” of gamblers in the most deprived neighbourhoods being “sucked into a vortex of debt”.

It is unclear whether the vortex of debt is in any way related to the jaws of doom, a device the Labour-led council uses to demonstrate Birmingham’s financial crisis, but more of that later.

Cllr Cotton said he would make it a matter of urgency to join with the chairman of Birmingham licensing Committee, Cllr Barbara Dring, in appealing to the Government for special powers to oversee the activities of bookmakers and limit the number of outlets.

He’s even going to get the Local Government Association involved, which you can only suppose will at least give the LGA something to do.

CONSERVATIVES and Liberal Democrats probably put in their best performance at today’s full council meeting since losing control of Birmingham in May, although that’s not saying much.

There appeared to be a more structured approach to questioning the Labour administration, with only one or two points raised about wheelie bins and just one parish council-type intervention from Tory Deirdre Alden who wanted to know why council leader Sir Albert Bore had failed to reply to a letter about a pedestrian crossing in Harborne.

What Bore should have said was that he had far better things to do. Sadly, he waffled about Deirdre giving him the details afterwards and then he would investigate.

And while Sir Albert wasn’t exactly put on the back foot by the Tory-Lib Dem assault, he did look rather uncomfortable at times.

Conservative leader Mike Whitby asked a question, which is a rarity these days. And it was a rather good question, or would have been if Cllr Whitby had asked it in plain English rather than convoluted Whitbyspeak for which a degree in unusual languages is required to translate.

Since I have 12 years’ experience of interpreting the former council leader, I will translate.

The gist of the question was that the city council Labour group’s decision to pay a Living Wage to council staff, boosting the lowest pay from £6.39 to £7.20 an hour at a cost of £1.3 million per year, is hardly being embraced by the Labour government. Ministers recently announced plans to guarantee six months’ work to long term unemployed people and will pay the minimum wage, which is substantially less than the Living Wage.

Sir Albert was further discomfited when his words on BBC Midlands Today were quoted back at him. He told viewers that he was in favour of “fair cuts” but that the cuts being imposed on Birmingham were far from fair. What, then, would Sir Albert describe as fair?

His reply was as follows: “Of course a Labour government would have had to introduce cuts and that would have impacted on local government. But because the Labour Party would have acted more fairly I believe the cuts that cities like Birmingham are now experiencing wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad as presently we are having to make.”

The jaws of doom was given its customary outing. Sir Albert, quoting a TUC report, suggested that the £600 million cuts Birmingham has to deliver would impact disproportionately on “poor” people who would lose 38 per cent of their income if they had to buy services from the private sector to replace abandoned council services.

And, finally, the issue that just won’t go away. Sir Albert claims that Birmingham City Council has to reduce expenditure by £600 million over a six year period from 2010-11 to 2016-17. He’s somewhat reluctantly admitted that the former Tory-Lib Dem coalition has already delivered or planned delivery of £270 million of the cuts.

However, Sir Albert is continuing to insist that part of the 2012-13 budget savings bequeathed to him by the coalition was little more than pie in the sky. He told the council: “I am afraid to say that part of those savings weren’t realisable and the coalition were advised on the appropriateness of some of these savings at the time they put the budget through.”

Goodness me. Is Sir Albert Bore claiming that former council leaders approved an unachievable budget against the clear advice of officials? I suspect we shall hear more of this.


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