Words: Richard Beecham, local democracy reporter
A Conservative West Leeds councillor has accused the authority of hypocrisy over its decision to cut its funding for police community support officers.
But the council’s ruling Labour group hit back, claiming the decision to cut £600,000 towards extra PCSOs in this year’s budget was down to a decade of funding cuts from Tory-controlled central Government.
The discussion took place in this month’s full Leeds City Council meeting, in which Conservative group leader Coun Andrew Carter (Calverley & Farsley) put forward a motion calling on the authority to reinstate the funding.
But, while many councillors from smaller parties agreed that PCSO funding should be reinstated, they did not support the motion as it contained a paragraph about cracking down on protesters.
Coun Carter told the meeting:
“We will push (the leader) a bit further on law and order and get him to reverse the cuts to PCSOs, and invest more in other areas of law and order.
“This white paper isn’t just about the reduction in funding for PCSOs, it is about much much more.”
He then produced a news story with the headline “Leeds restaurant moves due to shocking street violence”.
“That’s down on Kirkgate,” he said. “It goes on to say that they have seen two murders, lack of enforcement and lack of police presence.
“Of course, PCSOs alone won’t solve that.
“When you consider the fact that this council has a growth budget of around two and a half billion pounds, 600 and odd thousand pounds should be findable, especially when two thirds of that is what we spend on trade union conveners.
“On top of that, we have the city of culture, which is still soaking up millions of pounds.
“It is about combating this toxic atmosphere that is abroad, in public life at the moment. It is about combating hate speech, it is about making sure that our staff are safe from abuse, it is about elected members from all parties being properly protected.
“I am sure that we all agree on that. It is about all our communities feeling safe with what is relatively a small amount of money.
“It seems to me that it is impossible for you to continue to preach to putting more resources back into combating criminality, and then to reduce the number of PCSOs.”
Leeds City Council’s ruling Labour group announced in its February budget that it expected to save around £625,000 from the scrapping of the its subsidy for Police and Community Support Officers.
Last month’s spending review by Chancellor Rishi Sunak committed an extra £540m by 2025 to recruit the final 8,000 officers to meet the Government’s commitment to employ 20,000 additional police officers.
Coun Carter’s motion also took aim at protesters, claiming those using “extreme” methods cause disruption to the economy and to the public.
“People have a right to protest”
Proposing an amendment, Coun David Blackburn (Green, Farnley & Wortley) said: “There is lots within the motion I agree with, but the bits I can’t, I am amending.
“I remember around 30 years ago, myself and Coun John Illingworth and a number of people were involved in blocking Kirkstall Road during rush hour. I can see Coun Carter sending his police to arrest us.
“I don’t regard John as a terrorist, and I’m not one either.”
Coun Ann Blackburn (Green, Farnley & Wortley) added: “I know some of the protesters have been irritating a lot of people in other parts of the country by blocking roads. But at the end of the day, it is what they are protesting about.
“People have a right to protest, and I can’t go along with that paragraph.”
Coun Jonathan Bentley (Lib Dem) said: “We support this only up to a point. We certainly condemn the administration’s decision to axe the PCSO funding. I know the real-life consequences of that from our residents.
“There are enough powers for the police to deal with disruptive protesters. The concern is this is the thin end of the wedge, that it becomes restricting real protest. There have been enough attacks on democracy without adding this one.
“If people had more confidence in Government, and they didn’t think politicians were all about themselves and changing the rules when they want to, they may protest less.”
Coun Debra Coupar (Lab) is the deputy leader of Leeds City Council. She said: “To hear the opposition speak, you would think we didn’t have any in the city – but we have. We have lots of them in the city, and we are talking about the extra funding for extra PCSOs.
“In Leeds, we had a three-year match funding agreement with West Yorkshire Police for PCSOs.
“During those three years, we saw our funding cut massively, and we saw the funding for West Yorkshire Police cut massively. The fact is, when those three years came to an end, there was no money available to continue with what we were doing.
“Essentially, the Government didn’t value the funding enough to ensure we or West Yorkshire Police can afford to fund it.
“The Government are not recruiting more, they are in the process of getting numbers back up to where they were when Labour was in power. Putting back numbers that you cut is not recruiting more, and it is disingenuous to suggest that it is.”
Leeds City Council needs to ‘shrink’ its estate, claim finance chiefs
Leeds City Council will have to dramatically shrink the number of buildings it owns in the coming years in order to make ends meet, a report has claimed.
The authority is thought to be the largest property owner in the city, with around 800 operational buildings and another 1,000 investment properties, not including housing and schools.
Planning chiefs had put together a strategy back in 2014 to gradually sell some of these buildings off to generate income and reduce overheads.
However, a document set to go before Leeds city councillors this week has warned the authority’s post-Covid financial situation is so severe, another strategy was needed to cover the next five years.
A senior council decision-maker confirmed the estate would “shrink” in the coming years, but added that housing and school buildings would not be affected by the strategy.
A report, set to go before council decision-makers this week, stated: “The pandemic has increased the financial pressures that the council is facing compounded by the council’s underlying financial position resulting from successive government funding reductions, and therefore a new estate management strategy has been prepared for the period from 2021 to 2025.
“It sets out the way in which the council will strategically plan and manage its land and property assets to ensure that it fulfils all of its priorities and to enable the people, the city and its businesses to thrive.
“The document sets out the vision and a number of priorities and objectives. An implementation plan which will be a live document setting out the changes to our estate has been created and will be maintained by Strategic Asset Management.”
It added that the amount of office floorspace should be halved from January 2020 levels, and to reduce the carbon footprint of carbon footprint of its estate by 40 per cent.
Since the start of the pandemic, the council has reduced its number of city centre office buildings from 13 to four.
Another document published by the authority earlier this year claimed it wanted to make more than £100m in five years from building sales over the five year period, adding that it had already made £11.5m from selling sites such as Armley Grange, Richmond Hill Leisure Centre and Bramham House in the past year.
Continued central government cuts to local authority budgets has led to Leeds City Council seeing a reduction in its spending power by almost £328m per year since 2011 when accounting for inflation.
Writing in the council’s Estate Management 2021-2025 document, the authority’s deputy leader Coun Debra Coupar said: “For the council, the pandemic has changed the way that some services are delivered and the way that politicians and staff work.
“This will change the way we use our buildings and will allow us to reduce the size of our estate to help to meet the financial challenges we continue to face.
“The ability to deliver good quality front line services will continue to be underpinned by our buildings, which need to be suitable for the expected provision/fit for purpose, in the right locations and in good condition.
“Whilst we will shrink our estate, we will focus on our best buildings, both in terms of their condition and sustainability
“Our operational estate as well as surplus buildings can support regeneration and growth, particularly in our town and district centres and within our communities.
“Making land available for new housing is particularly important to support our own Council Housing Growth Programme and affordable housing delivered by Housing Associations as well as market housing.”
Tracking the cuts
WLD has been following the proposed council cuts through our Cutswatch series.