Merton Liberal Democrats realise that the coronavirus pandemic has put a severe strain on the budgets of councils across the country - and as a result, difficult decisions need to be made. We join all those urging the Government to provide enough additional support to local authorities.
The Labour party's proposed budget can be found on Merton Council's website.
In our budget amendments we will focused on three things:
- Investing in the future, by supporting children & young people;
- Ensuring those who have been on the front-line of the coronavirus pandemic receive a fair wage for their vital work; and
- Helping to tackle the climate emergency.
With this in mind, we have proposed a number of amendments to the budget plans (the full text of our amendments can be found on the Merton Council website):
1. 'Free school breakfast club' scheme
Local residents and businesses showed incredible generosity in stepping in to address the shortfall in Government support during the Coronavirus lockdown. One of the places this was seen most clearly was in the Free School Meals campaign where people donated cash to help families during school holidays.
We're now calling on the Council to run a pilot scheme to allow children who are eligible for pupil premium to attend school 'breakfast clubs' for free, to help tackle this issue - giving them and their families more support. This would be funded by voluntary donations from local residents and businesses.
2. Caring for our communities
Care workers have been on the front-line during the coronavirus pandemic. They're also amongst the lowest paid in our community. While Council employees are paid at least the London Living Wage, care workers who work for private companies that contract with the council, are not.
Last year we succeeded in convincing the council to take small but practical steps to ensure that all care workers in the borough receive the London Living wage. We're now calling on the council to make a firm commitment to aware all future contracts at the London Living wage.
We're also very concerned about the multiple changes that the Council wants to make to day centres, children's centres and the dementia hub. They say they want to re-imagine the way the services are provided - but we're worried this is just a way of cutting services quickly. So we are asking the Council to show councillors the detailed plans before they make the changes, to try to ensure that the people who use these services don't lose out.
3. Supporting our future
After the lockdown has eased we must focus on younger people, looking in particular at their health and opportunities. So we're calling on the Council to agree to:
- a review into whether dedicated Merton-based sexual health and mental health services for vulnerable young people escaping sexual exploitation could and should be introduced;
- a review into the operation and effectiveness of pupil referral units;
- a review of Merton’s use of the apprenticeships, to ensure the best routes for Merton's young adults to enter the job market, support local businesses to grow, and to stop the practice of LB Merton returning unused/expired apprenticeship levy monies to HM Treasury; and
- the necessary work to establish a Landlord Licensing scheme.
4. Addressing the climate emergency
Tackling the climate emergency must be a key focus for councils across the country. The Council's climate action plan depends on securing funding for projects to help achieve the huge change we need, and so part of our amendment is about putting in place enough staff resources to make sure that plan succeeds.
Furthermore, Merton Council recently introduced a new parking charges scheme, which they say is designed to improve air quality. We've argued before that we don't think the scheme will be effective, and that it will undermine the climate emergency response because people think its just a way to raise cash.
So, at the budget meeting we're proposing a number of changes to improve it:
- Extra revenue raised by the new charges should be separately reported, and should be ringfenced for spending on ways to tackle climate change;
- A new low mileage discount or rebate - this would encourage people to drive less, as well as mitigating the effects of higher parking charges on low income households that can't afford to buy a new car; and
- Reconsider the changes to visitors permits - it's not fair or effective to charge people more based on the type of car their visitor turns up in. How can that result in their visitor buying a more environmentally friendly car? It just looks like a way to raise cash, and disproportionately affects some older or disabled people who need more visits from care workers and family.
This won't be a normal festive period for many of us - below find out information on the current coronavirus rules, what support is available for anyone who is struggling, as well as practical information on council services in the coming weeks.
Recycling and rubbish collection dates
Staying safe over Christmas
The government has announced that Merton, along with every the rest of London, is now in Tier 4: Stay at Home - the highest level of coronavirus restriction. People living in Tier 4 cannot meet anyone outside their household indoors (unless you are in a support bubble). You can meet with one person from another household outdoors. These rules will not be relaxed for Christmas. Full details of the restrictions are available on the government website.
This has been a difficult year for many in our community. There is support available for households who are struggling:
COVID-19 Winter Grant scheme. There is financial support available for children who are eligible for free school meals, pre-school children who would be eligible for free-school meals, young carers and care leavers. Families with pre-school children need to complete a short form online to claim. Details of eligibility and how to claim are available on the council website.
Claim tax relief for working from home. If you have been required to work from home for one day (or more) since April 2020 you could claim tax relief for the year to cover the additional cost of home working - details of how to claim are available here.
Financial assistance available for Merton residents. If you are struggling financially then Wimbledon Guild may be able to help with a small grant. These grants provide financial assistance to help with items such as food, warm clothing, utility bills, essential furniture and household appliances for Merton residents. You can find out more, and apply, on the Wimbledon Guild website.
Cheap & Easy cooking. In a campaign to support those struggling to make ends meet, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has produced recipes for five Indian curries which can be prepared from as little as 9p per serving. There is a recipe booklet, as well as instructional videos for each recipe available here. Curry starter packs are being distributed to local foodbanks.
Mental Health support
Christmas can be a difficult time of year, and coronavirus restrictions will be increasing the pressure for many. If you are concerned about your mental health please do reach out for help:
Samaritans have a 24 hour, free helpline which you can call if you'd like to speak to someone: 116 123. They also have a self help app, and support available via email - more information here.
Age UK advice line is open 365 days a year, including Christmas. Providing support and reassurance to older people. If you, or someone you know, needs support call 0800 678 1602, for free between 8am to 7pm.
The Mix provide mental health support for under 25s. They can be reached on their helpline 0808 808 4994 between 3pm and midnight every day. They also have webchat and email support available - more information here.
Shout provide free 24/7 mental health support. Text `shout' to 85258 to access support. Resources are also available on their website.
Virtual Christmas events in Merton
Merton Liberal Democrats are moving a motion for the council cabinet to sign up to the ‘End Our Cladding Scandal’ campaign.
The motion comes as some flat owners are spending lockdown in unsafe homes which they can’t sell, and facing huge bills to fix the safety failings.
The motion states “many owners, in buildings of all heights, have been left in limbo” and are “understandably concerned about the cost of remedial work”.
Councillor Hina Bokhari for West Barnes, one of the motion’s movers, stated:
“After seeing first hand the effects the fire in Worcester Park last year had on residents, I know how devastating such a tragedy can be for residents. With the added extra mental trauma of this cladding scandal it seems completely unfair that the government are not doing more to support them and make sure they don’t have to pay the bill for fire safety in buildings.”
Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Wimbledon and fellow mover of the motion Councillor Paul Kohler Trinity further added:
"After the tragedy of Grenfell I am appalled the Tory government has done so little to ensure it does not happen again. Too many people are trapped in dangerous flats they can neither make safe nor sell. The government and developers must act urgently to solve a crisis that has made it impossible to even sell purpose built flats in blocks without cladding."
Supporting the ‘End our Cladding Scandal Campaign’ means supporting the campaign’s ten demands. This includes urging the government to lead a national effort to remove all dangerous cladding from buildings by 2022, ensuring that costs are not passed onto residents and providing mental health support to those affected.
Despite the backlash to the Government’s inadequate response to the Grenfell tragedy there are many residential buildings still finding they have unsafe cladding. In a 2020 survey of leaseholders from 117 housing developments by the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, 90 per cent of respondents said the government’s response to the ‘cladding crisis’ had been “no help at all.”
This is why Merton Liberal Democrats are asking Merton Council Cabinet and the government to go further when it comes to protecting those in residential housing.
In addition to supporting the demands from the ‘End our Cladding Scandal’ campaign, the motion calls for officers to make their audit of cladding issues in Merton available for public access, the audit to include low rise blocks under 18m, and for the creation of an online ‘hub’ for residents, tenants and long leaseholders in both the private and social housing sectors to access relevant support to deal with housing safety issues.
Click here to view the motion. You can also follow the End Our Cladding Scandal campaign here and keep up with our campaigns here.
The Liberal Democrats are calling for local government to take action in reducing plastic pollution across the borough.
Long after it has been discarded, plastic creates greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to the climate change emergency. The average London adult buys more than three plastic water bottles every week - a startling 175 bottles every year per person. In total, some 7.7 billion plastic bottles are bought across the UK each year, resulting in substantial amounts of single-use plastic waste.
This is why Merton Liberal Democrats are calling for the Council Cabinet to:
- Work with residents, businesses and organisations across Merton to help them go ‘single-use plastic free,’ sharing business support and practical advice to help the transition from single-use plastics to re-usable alternatives.
- Incorporate a relevant workstream into the Climate Change Delivery Plan. This might include, for example, the Council itself becoming ‘single use plastic free’, participation in schemes that encourage the refilling of drinking bottles, the installation of further water fountains, the collection and recycling of a full range of plastic materials, deposit schemes for plastic containers and information for residents and businesses.
The Merton Liberal Democrats believe that if the Council agree to these proposals will drastically help Merton’s fight against plastic pollution and to meet London recycling targets.
Merton Council has implemented (or is in the process of doing so) several 'School Streets' in roads around schools across the borough. These measures are designed to deter car trips for the `school run' by restricting motorised access in and out of the identified roads during the morning school opening and afternoon school closing periods under an Experimental Traffic Management Order (ETMO).
For over 2 months water has been leaking on the road and pavement outside South Merton train station.
Cannon Hill Councillor Jenifer Gould has persistently contacted Thames Water, Network Rail and Merton Council to get the leak fixed and return the pavement and road to a safer condition.
Lib Dem Cllr Paul Kohler has called for urgent action following a report by the Local Government Ombudsman into the case of a Merton resident who was forced to give up a job in London when Merton Council housed his family in Birmingham.
Merton Council’s housing policy allows it to prioritise certain households for homes in Merton, or within a 90 minute commute of the borough. Households who don’t meet certain criteria, including employment, can be housed “wherever accommodation can be secured”.
But the Ombudsman found that Merton Council had ignored information about the resident’s employment when housing him in Birmingham.
Cllr Paul Kohler said:
"We need urgent action from Merton Council to make sure that mistakes like this cannot happen again. This must include a review of everyone who has been housed more than 90 minutes away to see if they have been similarly affected.
“But we need to go further and investigate why we are housing people so far from their relatives and friends in the first place. Moving families to places where they know no-one is hugely stressful and disruptive and Merton should be avoiding doing so whenever possible.”
Liberal Democrat councillors have written to the Council asking what steps are being taken to avoid this happening again, and requesting a review of everyone who has been housed outside London in the last 2 years.
Liberal Democrat councillors have demanded Merton Council implements a name-blind recruitment process after it was revealed that it has a lower proportion of BAME senior managers than the average for councils across London.
A new report looking at the recruitment of senior council officers found that the proportion of BAME top earners was only 14.1% for Merton Council–against an average of 17% for all London boroughs. The current overall proportion of BAME council employees is 38%, potentially indicating that barriers to progression also exist.
Writing to Labour council bosses, Lib Dem Councillor Eloise Bailey said:
“We should be doing everything in our power to remove any barriers that limit the career opportunities of BAME candidates to ensure the Council reflects the people it represents. Again, we urge the Labour administration to adopt a simple, name-blind recruitment process”.
Despite this tried-and-tested approach being backed by the CBI, the body representing employers, as “needed to stop bias”, Council bosses have so far turned down the opportunity to implement this simple change.
Improving recruitment processes is one of a number of areas that Merton Liberal Democrats have been challenging the Council on to raise its record on equality. Others include calling on the Council to conduct a review into barriers to accessibility of being a councillor, and strengthening the process of Equality Impact Assessments.
Restore Free Travel for Under 18s in London
Siobhan Benita, Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, has called on the government to urgently reverse the temporary suspension of free travel for under 18s in London.
The condition was part of the recently announced support funding package for Transport for London.
Benita described the scrapping of the concession as “unjust” and said that it will be “a disaster for the capital’s poorest families”.
Local authorities remain responsible for providing free travel between home and school for children eligible for free school meals, and who need to travel over 3 miles. Following questions from Liberal Democrat councillors, Merton Council estimated this would cost close to £100,000 per year.
Cllr Jenifer Gould added:
“Many young Londoners rely on free travel to get to school. Taking away this concession at a time when so many families are struggling financially is indefensible. And there doesn’t appear to be any plan in place for those in need. The most sensible thing to do at this stage is to urgently reverse the decision.”
You can sign the London-wide petition against this here.
We know what it is like trying to keep children entertained and engaged, whilst trying to also work from home.
So we thought we would share some resources we seen, below. Let us know if you've any other suggestions!