At a meeting last night, Ludlow Town Council decided to ask Shropshire Council for extra time to negotiate the transfer of services from Shirehall to community control. The town council wants two years to negotiate with the unitary council and to build the local capacity to take on services. It wants to work with other councils around the county to create a strong negotiating position and share experiences. Many councillors were concerned about how to distribute costs across the parishes that use Ludlow services. They felt Ludlow residents should not have to pay the entire bill.
I was proud of the town council last night for the quality of debate and the incisiveness of the arguments. It was a council that recognised that if it had to take on services, it must get the arrangements and finances right. That can’t be done in just a few months. We unitary councillors are fully behind the council’s strategy of seeking more time to examine the implications of service transfer and to ensure than any services transferred can be run effectively and efficiently.
Councillors were hostile towards Shropshire Council and critical of the timescale imposed discussions by Shropshire Council. Councillors felt they were “being held to ransom”.
Several councillors talked of Shropshire Council holding a referendum to increase council tax. They were sceptical of the council not having sufficient funds to continue the threatened services for at least another year when it had just spent £600,000 on computer consultancy and had agreed a £17 million computer upgrade. They were concerned that an increase in the town council’s precept would be levied on every household regardless of the ability to pay.
Councillors unanimously resolved to insist that Shropshire Council secures funding from a loan or from their reserves to maintain services, giving Ludlow a two year time period to develop a sustainable workable plan. The town council will consult with similar sized market towns in Shropshire to get a consensus over a collective approach to Shropshire Council. The council will call on Philip Dunne MP to support the town and ensure adequate funding comes to Ludlow.
Notes from the debate
Councillor Graeme Perks pointed out that councils need communities but communities don’t necessarily need councils. He told fellow councillors they should “forget all the bits of paper, forget all the political stuff, what this council has to do is to be pragmatic.” He called for the town council to meet unitary councillors and Shropshire Council to find out what can be done.
Councillor Glen Ginger said that the town council should make serious contact with towns around the county and see if there is a sense of opinion across the county to approach Shropshire Council as one body. We would have far more weight if we had the other councils with us. “We should contact them to see if they will join the fight.” He questioned why Ludlow residents should bear the brunt of costs when all the parishes surrounding the town enjoy the use of the library, leisure centre and other services. “The only fair and democratic way forward is to apportion the cost through the whole community.” He said that Shropshire Council’s bad management had caused the current problems, not the town council, not government cuts. The problem was nine years of not increasing council tax. “If Shropshire Council has to go to a loan board to give us a year to sort this out, we shouldn’t have to be worried about this. It’s their fault.”
Councillor Di Lyle agreed that the council needed to work with other councils, “We need to draw together people power.” She wanted Ludlow town council to be more proactive and hold more frequent meetings to deal with the crisis.
Councillor Tim Gill said: “I think we are being bounced into taking on services. I think it is a deliberate ploy. My reaction when we were told is that we do nothing in terms of bailing out the services. We have seen year after year our services cut. We have had the indignity of Shropshire Council telling us how good they have been in saving money and protecting services. I agree with a lot of what has been said but we have got to get our MP involved.”
Councillor Gill complained that Philip Dunne had not supported the council over the withdrawal of £30,000 funding by Shropshire Council, “He merely asked what cuts we were going to make. He has supported Shropshire Council again and again. If we are going to make progress, we have to take Philip Dunne with us. He needs to make a statement and not the usual fudge that he does.”
Councillors were concerned that Shropshire Council would continue to charge the same amount of council tax, while parishes were forced to raise their precept. Councillor Paul Kemp said this amounted to double taxation.
Councillor Viv Parry said we have good services in Ludlow because the former district council spent money wisely. She worried that other town councils were “too entrenched in Shropshire Council” to cooperate. Richards Castle parish council had said it is prepared to pay to help keep the library going. Parish councils are prepared to help.
Councillor Paul Clark said that the council should see this as an opportunity to move forward. He said the council had to put the time in to get this sorted, “We have to establish what benefit we can gain as a town from taking on services.” He continued, “Some people will have to pay for services they didn’t have to pay for before.” He suggested that current gym fees at the leisure centre were “a steal” at the moment. He was prepared to pay more. He said: “All we need to do is to be cost neutral. We don’t need to make money out of services. We need to look at these cuts from the other end of the telescope, not a negative one, but a positive one. It’s a positive. We can make this work.”
Councillor Colin Sheward said that Shropshire Council was set up to run the sort of services it was now trying to transfer. He thought the costs had been underestimated and they could be unsustainable.
Councillor Ginger said the projected rise in precept of 197% was unrealistic as it took no account of the extra administration costs of Ludlow council taking on the services. “It’s probably a rise of 250% plus.” He said Ludlow is a small office at the moment at full capacity.
Answering Councillor Clark, Councillor Ginger said: “Yes, it would be an opportunity, but it’s not an opportunity you could look at over five years and put plans in place, where you learn the skills of running all these very complicated services. I’d love to be able to take on these services but you have got to be realistic. September if 19 weeks away. Shropshire Council has offices, knowledge and experience of how to run these services. People in this council have no experience of running a library, no experience of running a leisure centre. September is no time. We haven’t got the time. That’s why we should fight this.”
Councillor Ginger continued: “An awful lot of people in Ludlow aren’t in a position to pay more for services. If they had spare money, they had more important things in their life to spend it on than giving £200 to pay for services they are already paying for.”
Councillor Gill agreed. He said Ludlow is not a rich town. “Take out the centre and there is a lot of poverty around. I can’t with all honesty ask people to pay up £200 more. I just can’t do that. Equally, I don’t think I should be doing that.”
Councillor Perks said: “We don’t have time to set up a working group. We don’t have time to take a considered approach.” He suggested that Shropshire Council took a loan to continue to run services to allow two years for this council to come up with solutions to the problem. “We should take up councillor Ginger’s proposal to consult with nearby and similar councils to understand what our collective response should be. We should insist that the MP acts in Ludlow’s interests and talks to this town council.”
Council Clark responded: “I accept what other councillors say, but all I have heard so far is admissions of defeat. If this was a business, we would work damned hard to work out what is going to work for us.” The £200 precept rise is a figure plucked out the air. We need to know what income the leisure centre has. That could lead a minimal amount of increase in the precept. “We are in this boat and we are going to have to row it.”
Councillor Sheward said Ludlow Town Council was a small business being asked to take on a big one, “It’s like a sweet shop being asked to take on Tesco.”
Councillor Perks said: “Everything has been going from Ludlow, the depot, council offices, everything has gone to support Shropshire Council. It’s now time for Shropshire Council to give something back to Ludlow.”
Councillor Kemp said: “I love the idea of Ludlow services being run by Ludlow people. But this is blackmail.”
Council Rose Jones said: “Who’s fault is this? It’s no fault of the town, it’s the county council. Why don’t we go up to their offices and tell them to get off their backsides and come to visit Ludlow. Because a lot of people in Shrewsbury are behind a desk writing this, that and the other but they don’t know what Ludlow looks like.”
Paul Draper was re-elected for a third term as mayor. Colin Sheward was voted in deputy replacing Paul Kemp.
The council decided to hold a public meeting on the continued threat to Ludlow and county health services.