Preston Guild Hall

Prestonian blogger River’s Edge has had an outburst relating to the safe-guarding of Preston Guild Hall. Despite Preston City Council suffering one of the largest funding cuts – over £5m lost in two years – all three parties in Preston Town Hall, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the ruling Conservatives, have worked together in ensuring a budget which secures Preston’s Guild Hall as a venue for music, plays and comedians.

I agree with River’s Edge view that “[c]reating and enjoying theatre, music and dance are activities that can mean the difference between civilisation and dull quotidian existence.” The news that future Guild Hall productions will have a greater emphasis on local productions proves that Town Hall members are dedicated to keeping local theatre groups and local technicians in guaranteed employment. There is still a guarantee of big names being signed – so the best in national figures and local productions will continue to appear side-by-side. Even the Pantomime is secured. We could have the Chuckle Brothers again! Or Paul Dannan….Oh, wait, no, no..Not after last time…

The figures are clear. The Guild Hall complex costs over £1 million to run and maintain, and the last two years has seen consecutive losses of £1 million each. The financial pressures on Preston Council and taxpayers cannot be put to one side. Preston has secured, through some very difficult choices, the continued opening of both leisure centres at Fulwood and West View, and maintained the future of the Guild Hall, whilst suffering the severe central Government cuts.

Preston’s Guild Hall is more than just its Charter Theatre – the complex has room for improvements and expansions which would help our city in its aim to become “The Third City of the North West”. Some expansion plans will need to be mothballed, others explored through co-operations with third parties and local enterprise. Its ‘grotty’ side, that which used to be Morrisons leading to the Bus Station, is as bad an advert for Preston as anything I could imagine; surely the Council or the Guild Hall management can explore ways to brighten up this section without breaking the bank?

The reality is all three parties in Preston agree that a closed Guild Hall would be infinitely worse than one cut back to help balance the books. As somebody with the threat of redundancy over my own head, I know the sinking sensation in the stomach which comes from job uncertainty, and I can think of nobody within Town Hall who wants to deliver the worst news to staff currently working within the Guild Hall. There are avenues to explore and I hope the pain today can soon be over. We still have a venue to attract tourists, and ultimately money to help rebuild the shaky economy.

It’s refreshing that all three parties are getting somewhere with working within the financial realities for the city. Here’s hoping continued cross-party attitudes can carry on whilst the need for such attitudes is required…

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Barbed-wire Budget

Given “Brown’s legacy”, the first coalition government Budget sure could have been much worse. I am very concerned about the housing benefit cuts, but for most of the Budget I was very pleased at the credible alternative to Labour’s “spend spend spend”

As I said yesterday the VAT increase is unfortunate. One perspective I would like to run with – however uncomfortable I am with the increase for the long-term – is the hope of economic stimulus between now and January 4th. Will the big-ticket items be purchased now in such volumes to keep consumer confidence high and High Streets moving? Will increasing concern about the rise affect Christmas sales?

Increasing Capital Gains Tax to 28% is another hit, although those who can afford to pay tax on their capital gains should remember the “holiday” they have enjoyed since Gordon Brown reduced the rate while he was Chancellor. As put far more professionally by the Millennium Elephant some time ago, the increase will put right a lot of the unintended consequences of Brown’s reduction. Paying more on earnings than the woman who cleans your office? Not fair.

The increase in personal allowance to just shy of £7,500 is one step towards the LibDem policy of £10,000 before the end of the Parliament. The country could not afford the £10,000 in one leap – you bet your last dime Gordon Brown would have made that leap and charged us for it – so the increase is a welcome move. It certainly helps the 800,000 who will not be in the income tax bracket at all. Who would have expected that under a Conservative government?

Taking the income increase as one of the stand-out achievements of Liberal Democrat influence, I hope this encourages a culture of saving the money which is not taken in tax. God knows I need to put some more money away. It’s encouraging to see that the Budget retains support for ISAs.

Contention comes in the benefit cuts. Child Tax Credits are to be withdrawn from couples whose income is deemed ‘too high’, perhaps to reconfigure the system towards those who need the benefit most. Remember that middle-income earners were never supposed to reap the reward of the Tax Credit policy; this could go some way to redress the balance in a fairer way. Freezing Child Benefit – effectively a cut – could be redressed by the increase of the child element of CTC. If this is the quid pro quo I would like further information on it.

Where the biggest issue of contention seems to currently lie is housing benefit. The new regime of “maximum limits” on claims is supposed to run down the massive total amount spent nationally. If Channel 4’s “Fact Check” is right, there could be some horrific unexpected consequences;

the Department for Work and Pensions confirmed today the new cap will apply nationally. Labour MPs warn of a housing crisis in London and the South East, where rents are higher. For example, in parts of Hackney, the maximum housing benefit is £1,000 a week for a four bedroom house. Losing £600 a week would mean families currently claiming housing benefit would have to move to cheaper parts of London

The consequences of this policy make the liberal hairs on my neck stand on end. I fully accept that the cost of housing benefits is excessive, and a maximum limit could well help deal with those who are genuinely messing with the system, those who are genuinely claiming more than they are entitled…But as we know from Council Tax, “one size fits all” just does not work across the nation. In some parts of the north of England, this policy change could be a terrible idea.

(And, lest I forget, the cider increase is reversed. Good touch)

In conclusion, then…

Is this a Budget of “teh evil Toriez” as some elements within Labour would have it? No. This is the best that could have been done with the sort of cards which would have made Victoria Coren panic. Labour are responsible for massive national debt, repayment of which will soon cost more than the English education budget. What else could the Coalition do but to decrease spending and increase taxes?

Labour need to advise exactly what they would have done with a country on the edge of a Greece-style meltdown. The Coalition have been as fair as the economics allow – higher personal allowance, fairer rules for CTC, decreased Corporation Tax…There’s a lot which could have happened which has not. This is the Conservatives talking with a Liberal accent. The Budget is tough. The times are tight. I would rather live in this age of responsibility than Labour’s time of plenty.

VAT Attack

Former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has ranted against former Labour Ministers Frank Field and John Hutton advising David Cameron on welfare reform and pensions respectively.

(Frank Field, you may recall, was asked to ‘think the unthinkable’ on welfare reform by Tony Blair. When he did just that, he was sacked.)

Prescott is, naturally, wrong. To use the term “collaborators” is typical paranoia from the old socialist, unable to accept that politics can mean cooperation and compromise. Forget Gordon Brown’s “Government of the Talents”; that was the past, this is now. It’s the age of “teh evil Toriez”.

What hurdles exist for the coalition rise a little higher with this week’s emergency budget. Despite both David Cameron and Nick Clegg saying during the election campaign that VAT would not need to rise as part of (their then separate) budget proposals, it appears increasingly likely that some kind of increase will be announced by George Osborne. This could cause the fissures of tension within the coalition to split open like a crack in a Scottish girl’s bedroom.

VAT is not the fairest tax in the land; it does not discriminate as it increases the cost of almost all goods and services. To increase VAT, as is likely, seems one good way of making a dent in Labour’s legacy, the record national debt approaching £900bn. With the age of “borrowing money to pay off the debt” now forcing its consequences on us all, money raised from cost cutting and tax rises must hit all taxpayers to be fair. I welcome the proposals to freeze Council Tax. Now all we need to do is ditch it completely.

This country could not afford to keep Labour in power. We could not afford to borrow money to repay debt forever. There is still the danger of the UK being tipped into a Greek-style economic disaster area; the coalition needs to do what it can to drag us back. Increasing Capital Gains Tax to 40% is one way to recoup lost revenue; those who benefit from their capital gains can afford to take the hit that lower paid people cannot through a VAT hike. There has to be fairness. I would prefer VAT not to increase – I said so at the launch of the coalition on this blog – however nobody can be in denial about the struggle ahead as income revenues fall, inflation rises, unemployment remains high.

I hope that the Budget speaks with a Liberal Democrat accent; the increase in income allowance and removal of child tax credits from those whose combined income is too high to justify the cost being two I would welcome. There has to be fairness in these tough times.

An increase in VAT would be a severe hit; the economy is in trouble, cuts need to be made, spending needs to be prioritised. I am unsure that VAT, which effects middle and low paid people disporpotionaly more than those on higher incomes, is the best tax to target at the moment.

Law and Disorder

Home Secretary Theresa May is reportedly planning to introduce a ‘law and order levy’ on pubs which want to open after 11pm.

This is not something I would support. May is attempting to deal with a flawed licensing system with the wrong solution.

Labour’s changes to the licensing laws came as a welcome modernisation. Our out-dated “closing times” had to be done away with. Unlike the Daily Mail rent-a-reaction, I did not foresee rivers of booze and blood flowing down the High Streets of England. Coupled with the new powers given to Local Authorities to deal with troublesome pubs and clubs, Labour seemed to get things right on this.

Unfortunately, in the enthusiasm to introduce 24hr licenses – and remember, very few pubs or clubs actually do open 24hrs – Labour assumed an instant change to a continental drinking culture. Not so, of course, as there would have been the necessary introduction of ‘purchasing quotas’ and a statutory watered-down ale limit to facilitate that sort of change. Britain took to license liberalisation with (mostly) maturity and (some) over-enthusiasm. Hence May looking at this new ‘night-time tax”.

Pubs are struggling to stay open as it is. The smoking ban and cheap supermarket prices have eaten into the pub market share. Now add the change in social behaviour – is “going to the local boozer” such a part of every day life among the young or those on middle incomes? – to see why the publican does not always have a happy lot.

This “law and order levy” would be an unfair tax on publicans. Local authorities, in this time of economic constraint, would not shy from asking all pubs to put money into a “policing pot”. Cash-strapped independent or small holdings would go to the wall; “brand name” pubs would take the hit. Which is more likely to have reason to call out the cops – The Red Lion or a Scream pub on the edge of a student village?

Councils are able to order additional restrictions on licenses, and the extended opening hours policy is a genie not likely to fit back into its bottle. Together publicans, police and Councils should be able to continue working towards tackling what disorder exists without an additional financial burden on tax-payers (generally) or publicans (specifically).

Much ado…

Gordon Brown, so controlling and demanding, and reportedly high on the autistic spectrum, has never understood how the economy fell from out of his grasp. Having inherited the golden economic legacy from the Conservatives in 1997, nothing his clunking fist could get hold of stayed the way he wanted. Through political fudges and not exactly subtle stealth taxes – and let us not forget such highlights as the gold sell off disaster and unforgivable 10p tax abolition – Brown will be recorded by future historians as one of the least credible economic figures in British political history.

His attempt today to force Alistair Darling into yet another ventriloquists act has done nothing to rescue his reputation one inch. The Budget today is a middle of gimmicks and aspirations; above all else, it is the equivalent of treading water. Darling did not want the end of his career to come like this, reading out Gordon Brown’s words, coming up with sticking plaster solutions to the serious debt and unemployment issues facing the country. But Darling had no choice.

Today’s budget has few highlights. I welcome the tax-break scheme for British video game developers, an overdue recognition. The increase in the ISA limit is one I genuinely applaud.

I certainly don’t welcome the sneeky “freeze” on personal tax allowances, the oldest trick in the book, one to increase Government tax intake.

Freezing Inheritance Tax at £325,000 could cost an additional £37,000 in real terms.

And as for the 10% hike in the cost of cider – what exactly is this going to achieve? Oh yes, that’s right, the Brown “new puritan” drive, the same “ban everything, tax everyone, full naked body scanners for all!” mantra we have heard year after year. “Has he taxed curry, music and sunshine?” asks a work colleague.

The problem with this budget, of course, is how shallow it is, from the moment Darling stood to the minute he was duly patted on the back by his Master. There is nothing in this budget because Brown needs yet more breathing space before calling the election. His hatred of uncertainty, of things out of his control, will soon catch up with him. An election cannot be delayed much longer, and everyone in the Chamber knows this to be true.

This was the introduction. Now the main show. Time to show the depth to the slogans, the meat on the bones, and call the election.

champagne and chips

“Mature, and depressing” was how I summed it up. Like the day you decide not to stay up late to masturbate over the Television X “ten minute preview”.

My decision was the big black line drawn through the one word question; “Laptop ?”. My April “budget” now reads like a list of actions rather than objects; nights out, at least two Burscough home matches, and payment of bills. I daren’t deal with percentages: over half my monthly wage is gone before the sun rises on pay day weekend…

Not having a laptop (and therefore regular internet access) is my biggest personal problem at the moment. Well, that and not bringing socks in from the washing line in time to avoid a passing storm. Oh, and eating most of an Easter Egg for breakfast this morning, that weighs pretty heavily, too. But let me focus on internet access for the time being. It’s not that I am the archetypal geek who misses live-tweeting Question Time and updating Wikipedia at 2 in the morning – as much as that truly is missed – it’s the very fact of being ‘locked away’ from a world I have grown accustomed to over ten years of dial-up and broadband access. Yes, okay, I have wandered into the 4chans and meme factories of the ‘net as much as anyone; I am with the Finns on this, Internet access is a human right, as important to business leaders as the child in a high-rise aspiring to be the best they can be in the world outside their flat.

It may sound somewhat like a sulk, and perhaps after nearly a year without access at home, my mild annoyance at having nothing to do when the television lets me down is close to developing into something less admirable.

I will land on one side of the argument, though. By deciding against buying a laptop this month, I have freed up spends and been awfully sensible about the use of my wage over a 5-week month. And that’s far more sensible than I have been recently.

This week Alistair Darling is set to read out Gordon Brown’s election budget, much like the Queen is forced to read Labour’s manifesto at least once a year. Oh for either Darling or Liz to bring their own script to Parliament.

In the case of Darling, he knows Brown cannot wait to get rid of him, which makes the cowardice over the Budget details all the more depressing. If it was me – and Good Lord, can you imagine that! – I wouldn’t let the Prime Minister within stapler-throwing distance of the Budget Speech until it was too late to change so much as the break in the first paragraph. Brown, responsible for the longest and deepest recession in British history, taking low income earners to 20p tax rate, and every other economic shit-storm since 1997, may well fail to impress this week in any case, given UNITE’s attempt to ensure every last detail of 1979 is recreated in colour prior to the election on May 6.

Darling does not want a “give away budget”, exactly the opposite to Brown, who would prefer to plunge into the bottomless pit [as he sees it] of debt to ensure more votes are bought for Labour in seven weeks time. Darling would be best to outline exactly how he intends to deal with the deficit and growing numbers of “invisible unemployed”, signing Brown up to a deal he cannot escape. Clearly in my current state I would prefer a £1,000 “citizens payment” straight into the bank accounts of everybody through some form of the fabled Robin Hood Tax. That personal moment aside, I am a Liberal Democrat, where fairness in the tax system has been at the centre of our policies for longer than Brown has been plotting to parachute Ed Balls into Number 11. And that’s a long time, readers.

I would have used this blog to vent spleen on the latest tabloid target – the legal high “MCat” or “drone”. However, given how well it is written, I leave you in the sensible hands on this subject to Charlie Brooker

"Localism" requires annual elections

David Cameron may not spend much time considering the finer details of the City of Preston Conservative association, even when it is the ruling administration of our city, but I do wonder if he will start to take a closer look at the latest budgetary wheeze.

Faced with the requirement to fill a financial black hole given to them by 20-odd years of Labour mismanagement, the Tories are chin-stroking over the concept of scrapping yearly “in thirds” elections for Preston Council, replacing them with 4- or 5- yearly “all out” votes. This may look good on paper, but not only does it remove the democratic accountability enjoyed by people in Preston for generations, it flies in the face of David Cameron’s ambition for “greater localism” and “power to the people” and all that jazz.

I am in favour of fixed term parliaments where such a concept suits the institution – Westminster, Holyrood, Brussels – while favouring much more “instant recall” the closer one gets to everyday problems. One case in point is South Ribble Council, only 10 minutes walk from my front door. Their ongoing problems with a controversial waste disposal site angered a lot of voters, but these people could not register their displeasure at the ballot box for an entire year until the electoral cycle came round again. In Preston, with our annual “in thirds” system, voters would have been able to have their say almost instantly. And for the record, yes, the Liberal Democrats of whom I am a member were slaughtered at the eventual elections for supporting the plant from the start.

The Preston Tories may think they have managed to explain away their annual election plan without greater scrutiny. It’s not just about money – the local Conservatives doubtlessly struggle to find enough candidates to stand year on year. Well if the much smaller Liberal Democrats can do it – and in recent years we have been very open in admitting our inability to find enough members to stand even as paper candidates – then perhaps the pride of the Tories has to take a pinching too.

Local institutions need greater scrutiny. This means annual elections at district level, and I include County Councils in this too, put an automatic dividing wall between the voters and the winning Councillors. It becomes too easy to hide in a Town Hall room for 4- or 5- years between elections. Annual elections for Council ensure a reduction in complacency and an increase in democratic accountability. If Cameron wants “localism” to be the new watchword for his first Conservative Government, I suggest he takes a closer look at the administrations running councils in his party’s name.