David Churchill talks politics and X Factor with MP Stephen Hammond
As spending cuts begin to bite as hard as the winter weather, Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond sips his Starbucks latte and talks candidly about a year which has rocked politics to its foundations.
The general election’s toppling of Labour’s dominance, the first coalition since 1945, first televised leader’s debates, riotous en masse protests, and the biggest spending cuts since Thatcher’s rule, all stamp 2010 with an epochal aura he agrees.
But there is one major event beyond the Westminster bubble he still agonises over.
“I watched X Factor and was surprised that Matt won. He had a couple of bad weeks at the end where he was probably running on former glory from previous performances,” he said.
“I wanted One Direction to win, although I didn’t have a particular favourite this year. But I found Wagnermania very resistible.
“I’m certainly very much an X Factor rather than Strictly man.”
But with this week’s launch of the government’s Localism Bill, it isn’t long before he starts talking politics.
The bill, given its first reading in parliament by Communities and Local Government secretary, Eric Pickles, not only shrinks council budgets by up to 8.9%, but abolishes ring fencing on grants so that councils can splash cash in the areas they wish.
Mr Hammond, who is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mr Pickles, animatedly explains the government’s plans.
He said: “I do think these cuts are fair. We absolutely accept it’s difficult, absolutely accept it’s tough, but I do think it’s fair, and we’ve tried very hard to ensure that the most vulnerable communities are protected.
“We’ve had a system for many many years where local authorities have been central government’s poodle, but with the Localism Bill there is clearly going to be a large amount of power given back to local authorities. The de-ring fencing of grants has already started the process this year.”
But with this seismic shift in power comes responsibility he adds, insisting it is local rather than central government’s duty to ensure public services aren’t affected.
“I’m going to stand up and argue very strongly that the bulk of this is entirely down to how local government responds, and in different parts of the country you see a number of councils acting very differently to others in looking at the overall structure and size of the council, the structure of how it does things,” he said.
Merton Council’s budget is set to shrink by 3.9% for 2011/12 and a further 3.4% for 2012/13, prompting their decision to pull funding from the Service to Older Merton Residents run by Volunteer Centre Merton.
The centre claim the council’s decision means isolated and housebound elderly residents no longer have a borough-wide volunteer befriending service, or practical support from volunteer drivers and gardeners.
But the Wimbledon MP thinks Merton Council should take responsibility, insisting cuts to frontline services are due to what he sees as avoidable council inefficiency.
He said: “I think it is reasonable to expect Merton council to be able to deliver the same quantity and quality of services.
“You’re seeing other councils up and down the country doing all sorts of things to ensure that services they deliver are the first things they protect by restructuring, cutting out tiers of management, sharing chief executives, sharing officer teams, and if Merton isn’t doing this then I think people should be asking why.
“Unfortunately, the only response I’ve seen from Merton Council is an indication that they’re going to salami slice some of the grants they make to local groups, and it strikes me as a very depressing response.”
However, the Leader of Merton Council, Stephen Alambritis, expresses very different ideas, sparking something of a political turf war by claiming the council are in a catch-22 situation.
“The simple truth is that central government are cutting funding to local councils by more than a quarter over the next four years. As a result, no area of council spending will be exempt from cuts,” he said.
“It’s all very well for the government to say we shouldn’t reduce funding to the voluntary and community sector at a time when we are also having to think about cutting children’s social workers, end care for some old people or close libraries.
“They are forcing us into an impossible choice. Although we all have to tighten our belts, this recession was not caused by old people, children, or the poorest in our society – and it is not fair the government wants to hurt them the most.”
Mr Alambritis added there are currently over 300 charitable organisations listed by the Merton Voluntary Sector Council, which he is worried will inevitably be hit.
But of the challenges posed to Wimbledon, Mr Hammond expresses most worry about primary school education.
Birth rates have risen by 30% across Merton since 2004, leaving the council in limbo over whether to expand existing schools or build a new school in North Wimbledon on an already over-stretched budget.
Mr Hammond believes the debate over which costed option to take has been exacerbated by the handover of power from Conservatives to Labour in this year’s local elections.
“The previous council Conservative administration would have both expanded schools and also built a new school. This new Labour administration has decided, at the moment, not to build a school and only expand school classes.”
Despite the doom and gloom of looming cuts for 2011, he believes he can continue to “increase the quality of life” of his constituents.
For Mr Hammond, the future’s bright, the future’s blue.