Now the Conservative/Lib Dem Government has passed its halfway mark, Sunderland Council leader Paul Watson and his Tory opposite number Coun Robert Oliver give their verdict on the coalition’s performance.
Sunderland City Council leader Paul Watson
AT this halfway point in the Coalition Government’s tenure, my over-riding feeling is that the city of Sunderland, having survived by showing unrivalled resilience, innovation and community spirit, is now no better-off, despite the sacrifice, because of the total inability of the Coalition Government to manage this country’s economy in a fair and just manner.
The cuts so far have had a massive impact on things like local authority jobs, the National Health Service, police, fire brigades and the community voluntary sector provision and, of course, the resultant effect on the local economy is devastating with as many as one-in-four shops closed and their premises for sale or to let.
The real and harsher impacts of the Welfare Reform Bill will start to have more effect in our communities in the new financial year.
Many families and individuals, already struggling, will simply not be able to make ends meet and potentially keep a roof over their heads, when their household incomes are significantly reduced and there is no prospect of making up the difference to afford rent, or mortgage repayments.
Every week I meet and talk to amazing people from charitable and community organisations who are already stretched beyond capacity trying to supply food parcels to unprecedented numbers of people – an almost unbelievable situation to be in, in the 21st Century, in one of the richest countries in the world.
And this hardship is not only being faced by those who are out of work or in lower paid employment – we, like many other places, are seeing frightening increases in the numbers of people who are making what would be described as a ‘decent wage’, but with the rising cost of living and consumables, simply cannot afford food by the time the other bills are paid, or even partially paid.
We have all seen the local news headlines regarding company closures and job losses as a direct result of Government cuts and spending policies dangerously weakening the local economy and badly damaging Sunderland’s businesses.
The fact is that the growth and consumer confidence so vital to business and indeed every successful economy, never really stood a chance with such unrealistic austerity measures as we have witnessed over the past two years.
How, in the North East, can economic recovery be expected to happen to any significant degree when thousands of jobs have literally been wiped out in the public sector? And why, as a great many more before me have asked, is the annihilation of many vital public services – particularly for the more vulnerable members of our society – considered to be a fair and decent way to pay for the failures of the banks?
At the city council, we have turned the challenge of absorbing a £100million budget cut into an opportunity to streamline, redesign and indeed improve services for local people.
However, to have to make savings of a further £100million over the next three years gives us a staggeringly steep hill to climb and ‘doing more of the same’ – regardless of how effective the strategy has been to date – is simply not an option and it won’t work – not for services and not for the people of Sunderland.
With the Government presently in power until at least 2015, we can only hope they will, as they have suggested, adopt the Labour Party’s policy of spreading the burden over a longer period and thereby doing less damage to the structure of communities and the economy.
Despite the ongoing economic gloom, the city has secured 20 new private-sector investment projects, creating over 3,500 jobs and we have secured one of the new Enterprise Zones, with the first Enterprise Zone investment anywhere in the UK
The city has attracted three new hotel developments. Either started or about to start. The new Sunderland Software Centre has been built and will open soon and in partnership with IBM, we have built a private city cloud, one of the first of its kind in Europe, along with our comprehensive superfast broadband coverage
Young people in the city have achieved some of the best GCSE results ever, which is a fantastic achievement, putting us at the top of the table regionally, and above average nationally.
This despite the Conservative-led onslaught our young people had to suffer under the current mismanagement of education, with over a £1billion overspend on the Government’s flagship academies and free schools project.
We have had another season of world-class concerts at the Stadium of Light and over 15,000 people turned out recently for the Christmas lights switch on.
All of these successes pay testament to the grit and endurance that is the city, but there is little time to celebrate as wave after wave of relentless challenges are thrown at us by a government that seems out of touch with the effect its policies are having on the most vulnerable in society.
And frankly, there is even more to come with the Government promising more austerity and cuts to those at the bottom and more tax cuts for those at the top.
Before the 2010 election David Cameron stated that the north east would suffer badly under his Government. It is plain to see in Sunderland that this is the one promise he intends to keep.
And indeed despite these drastic cuts the Government is increasing the national debt not reducing it as promised, just as they are undermining the NHS, not protecting it as promised.