What is Merton Council for? Neither the Labour administration nor the Conservative opposition seem to have an answer to this simple question. But we do: Lib Dems believe our Council exists to take those decisions - sometimes small, sometimes tough - that can make our daily lives better.
We want the Council to be the best it can be, so it can do the best it can do for local people. But up until now the Council, under the same Labour adminsitration and with the same timid Conservative opposition that it’s had for the past decade, has been unwilling to change or to try new ideas.
We think Merton Council, and local people, need a fresh start.
So today Lib Dem councillors will be putting forward amendments to the Council’s annual budget to change the way that the Council works for the better. Here’s our three point plan:
1. Hungry for learning, not for breakfast: our plan to introduce free breakfast clubs at schools
Lib Dems are committed to giving our children the best possible start in life. In government we introduced pupil premiums to give schools the funding they need to provide proper support for underprivileged students. Today we want to build on this by giving those same pupils eligible for the premium access to before-school breakfast clubs free of charge.
Breakfast clubs have been proven to reduce hunger in children, improve concentration and behaviour in class and support better educational outcomes. Breakfast clubs also provide a vital service for parents with busy lives or those struggling to make ends meet, giving them more flexibility in the mornings and giving them one less thing to worry about knowing that their child is being properly taken care of.
Our plan would fund a pilot scheme for free access to before-school breakfast for underprivileged pupils in Merton. We would pay for this through a Voluntary Contribution Scheme - something we’ve called for previously, but which has been rejected by Labour and Conservative councillors - with evidence from other councils that have introduced similar schemes showing that it could raise up to a million pounds.
2. Protecting the vulnerable, ditching the dogma: our plan to prioritise the services local people rely on, not the pet projects of council bosses
The Labour administration is currently proposing a series of cuts to social care services that would have a massive impact on some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
From plans to introduce charges for “blue badge” parking permits for disabled drivers, to cutting three vacant youth worker posts rather than filling them, we feel that the Council is failing to prioritise those people who most need our support. Instead, the Council wants to continue spending money on a marketing magazine, My Merton, and surplus trade union reps for Council employees.
Our plan would reverse this dangerous misalignment of priorities, to ensure we focus our precious resources on those areas where we can the biggest and the most positive impact for local people. Our plan to scrap the My Merton magazine, reduce the number of full time trade union activists that the Council pays for (because the number of Council employees has reduced significantly in the last 5 years) and release money from the Council’s cash reserves would allow us to push back the administration’s proposed cuts to vital support services.
3. A fresh start for Merton residents: our plan to ensure the Council learns lessons so we can build a better future
We want the Council to be the best it can be so we can do the best for local people. There is so much more we can do if we step up and take bold action. Whether it’s being open to new ideas to improve services or setting a positive example for others on the climate emergency, we want to know that the Council is doing everything it can and not shying away from difficult decisions.
But to do this the Council needs to be better at collecting and using information to innovate and improve the way it works.
That’s why we’re proposing a series of areas in which the Council needs to expand its evidence base, to open the door for more ambitious and more effective decisions in the future.
From exploring the costs and benefits of the Council paying a living wage to its contractors, to looking at the need for dedicated sexual and mental health services for survivors of sexual exploitation in Merton, we can do so much more to respond to the needs of local people - we just need to know how we can help.
We also want to ensure that the Council's climate change and air quality plans have money behind them, and we identify some assumptions about the number of parking permits that will be sold that could be wrong, which would allow us to put the money raised into the environment.
These projects will cost nothing extra in the short term, but could yield real benefits in the long term. This is about not being afraid to do things differently to the way we’ve done them before, to give local residents a fresh start and a chance for a better future.
For full text of the amendments, click here.