Our first area action group meeting – cuts, cuts and more cuts

We had the first of the new Area Action Groups in Kilburn (Camden) ward last night (Weds 15 Dec)– as you might expect, the focus was the impact of the ConDem coalition’s cuts on the council, and particular our ward, Kilburn.  I’m grateful that Cllr Sarah Hayward, the Cabinet member for Community, Regeneration and Equalities was able to attend, and give an excellent presentation on the facts and figures.

These new Groups are a remodelling of the old Area Forums, stripped down to reflect our more austere times, and thus more reliant on local people to provide the lead and focus for what the Groups should focus on and how they should operate.  There’s a separate area on Camden’s website where a note of yesterday’s meeting will be posted in due course, so these comments are less an accurate record and more my reflections of the tone of the meeting.

We had a good mix of residents and people involved in community organisations, like Abbey and Kingsgate Community Centres, huddled together for warmth in a distinctly chilly Abbey Hive.  We spent some time focussing on some specific questions around funding streams that practitioners posed; more widely there was concern that the Community Investment Programme shouldn’t turn into a fire-sale of assets (personally, I don’t think it will; indeed it could provide some opportunities for closer working and new facilities) and there was quite a bit of discussion about how limiting funding to the voluntary sector limits their ability to draw in funding from other areas, and thus can prove a false economy.

More generally, I would say that everyone shared a desire to get as much information as soon as possible – and I hope that everyone appreciated that our clear priority, as a Labour council, was to protect frontline services for the most vulnerable and safeguard the vibrant community mix which makes Kilburn, and the borough as a whole, such a great place to live.

There were some worries expressed that, in the past, Kilburn has suffered from being far from the town hall and the south of the borough.

As ward councillors, Thomas, Maryam and I were quick to point out that we were always reminding our fellow Labour councillors and officers that Kilburn is one of (if not the) most deprived ward in the borough – Sarah backed us up on this!  This means that, inasmuch Camden is protecting services where there is the greatest Kilburn will be near the top, not the bottom, of the pile.  We will certainly argue long and hard to make sure that is the case.

One comment was that the whole process seemed incredibly rushed.  I completely agree – but this is not of the council’s making.  We only found out how much grant the Government is giving us on Tuesday and we have to set a budget and a council tax by the end of February.

Throw in the Xmas period, and this leaves not much time at all to undertake a huge re-engineering of what the council is and does.  If we had more time to consult and explore other options, we would, but time is against us – no doubt down the line we will work out that tricks have been missed in the rush to get everything done.  This is just another facet of the pernicious nature of the Government’s cuts.

Having said that, the meeting was good-natured in tone and there was a frank and open discussion.  No insults were hurled or allegations of treachery made;  there was more a tacit understanding that these cuts are very bad news for our area and that we will need to work together to weather the storm.

Fr Andrew Cain from St Mary’s (I hope he won’t mind me name-checking him) kindly said our openness as councillors (especially Sarah in her presentation and answering questions) was refreshing.  To be honest, given the size and scale of the challenge, obfuscation simply isn’t an option.

I’ve not dwelt on the politics of the cuts much here.  To be fair, nobody in the meeting suggested the cuts were a force for good, or even made an argument about them being a necessary evil.  The unstated feeling of the meeting seemed to me to be that the scale and speed of the cuts was crazy, a bit surreal even, and clearly the Coalition had no concern or concept of the impact on a place like Kilburn which relies so heavily on a vibrant public realm.

Instead, the consensus seemed to me to be that we are indeed “all in it together”, but that was because areas like Kilburn are always picked on by right-wing governments who want to roll back the state and there’s a historical solidarity which comes from that.

As I said, these Groups are meant to be by, and for, local people.  So if you couldn’t make it last night, please look out for notices on this site and elsewhere of the next meeting, likely to be in March.  As ever, advanced info will be circulated through our eBulletin – you can sign up for it by emailing kilburn@camdenlabour.org.uk

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