Key issues ahead of tomorrow’s election

3rd May 2023
Vote being cast at a polling station

Never does the OTS inbox burst with so many political press releases as election time. As parties and candidates from across the town battle it out for your vote, we take a look at some of the key issues ahead of tomorrow’s local election.

Children’s Services

Nearly a decade of concerns about the quality of Sefton Council’s Children’s Services culminated in February 2022 when it was rated inadequate by Ofsted.

In response, the allocated percentage of Sefton Council’s budget towards children’s services has increased dramatically from £33m to £70m.

Labour’s Cllr Mhairi Doyle, who received an MBE in 2013 for her community work with disadvantaged people, was appointed to the unenviable role of cabinet member for children’s social care in 2021.

Reports since 2022 suggest the service is slowly and steadily making the required improvements, but criticism remains that the pace of these improvements is too slow in some areas.

Southport MP Damien Moore and Cllr Mike Prendergast have since called for the resignation of Cllr Doyle and Labour leader Cllr Ian Maher. In April Cllr Prendergast said: “The Labour leaders in Sefton need to consider their positions carefully and ask themselves, are they the right people for the job and can they actually improve things for the most vulnerable children in Sefton.”

It would surely be hugely reassuring for the people of Southport if this dramatically sad and unpleasant situation had ushered in even a temporary state of bipartisanship. Political scrutiny is of huge importance, certainly, but protecting Sefton’s children from harm does, at times, seem to be of secondary importance to scoring a political goal.

Council Funding / Budget

Concurrent maximum rises in Council Tax from Sefton Council have increased an already significant local political divide between Labour and Conservative. Local Labour officials point out that funding from central government has seen significant cuts, while Southport Conservatives argue that rectifying previous mistakes from Labour is causing budget shortfalls and overspends.

In 2022 Labour’s Cllr Ian Maher said that central government funding to Sefton Council had fallen by 50% since 2010, forcing them into making £233m of savings in the last ten years.

Cllr Greg Myers: “We have both local Conservatives and Lib Dems criticising the recent council budget and rise in council tax – neither of them though ever put in an alternative budget, something they also keep quiet about.”

“That’s because they both know it’s been Conservative government policy for over a decade, with Lib Dem help for five years of it, to massively cut local authority funding and also move as much of central government funding as they can over onto local council tax payers.”

Southport Conservatives voted against Sefton Council’s latest budget in March, saying: “We will not support a budget that taxes the people of Sefton to pay for Labour mistakes.”

Southport Pier

Structural engineers ordered Sefton Council to close Southport Pier on a temporary basis back in December following the discovery of damage during a significant cold snap.

Further investigation into the structural integrity of the pier showed further previously-undiscovered damage and the Pier looks set for a prolonged closure.

At a planning meeting last week, councillors discussed the possibility that the pier may require demolition. When contacted by OTS News, a Council spokesperson denied that demolition had been officially considered.

The Pier has unexpectedly become a political football ahead of tomorrow’s election, in conjunction with the concerns that Splashworld has now been closed for four and a half years.

Councillor Mike Prendergast, head of the local Conservative Group says that the pier is symbolic of “a Sefton Labour administration that neglects our town” while Labour’s Councillor Greg Myers points out that the problems started before Labour had control of the Council.

“At no point did he acknowledge that the problems at those sites were down to contractor build issues – which began long before Labour had control of the council.”

“Much like the devastating cuts that the Conservatives and Lib Dems both imposed which have hugely affected council services – Labour though has been left dealing with the consequences.”

The Strand

In 2017 the council took out a loan to acquire The Strand for £32.5m, before confirming in 2021 that its value had fallen to £14.2m.

The current repayment plan is due to stretch for 40 years, with £1.7m worth of council funds servicing the debt each year.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Simon Shaw has previously called the purchase “foolish” and said the money could have been better spent on other matters important to local residents such as potholes. In 2022, Southport Conservatives criticised the £1.7m loan servicing fee when their motion to spend £750,000 on Hesketh Park, Botanic Gardens and Kings Gardens was voted down.

Despite criticism on the finances of the deal, Sefton Council has regularly committed to the Strand’s future. Earlier this year, after an initial snub, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt endorsed the Council’s plans and allocated £20m in funding for a community college digital hub, a health hub and beehives to create an “open, outward-looking environment” at the centre.

The Strand also stands as the most important monument to the understandable-but-not-really-true belief that Sefton Council is solely concentrated and concerned with the fortunes of Bootle. While it’s certainly true that the Sefton Labour group has deep roots in Bootle, the sight of Bootle-based councillors twiddling their thumbs while matters pertinent to Southport are discussed at length in the Council chamber is not uncommon.

Can Reform UK spoil the Birkdale party?

Reform UK’s sole candidate in the Southport area is Andrew Lynn who is set to stand in Birkdale.

Long-standing Liberal Democrat councillor Simon Shaw is undoubtedly the clear favourite to retain his seat, but Labour will look to keep up the significant gains they have seen in the area over the last decade, with Sonya Kelly winning Labour’s first ever seat in Birkdale last year.

In an election statement published at the end of April, the Southport Reform party said they stood for lower council tax and business rates, protecting local heritage and green spaces, and prohibiting educating children on gender identities and critical race theory.

In reality Reform UK face an uphill struggle to win election. In 2019, Reform’s electoral cousin UKIP received less than 10% of the vote while Cllr Shaw received 48%.