Cut it out, Conservatives

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 18 May 2011 in Diary
Yes, we need to cut back on our out-of-hand spending but is putting kids up to ransom in play parks really necessary? Francesca Preece argues why we have our priorities all wrong

Cuts have become synonymous with the Conservatives. It seems cuts are all voters see when they look at our party. And who can blame them? Our governments have always tried to keep costs down. The Tories are the bores with calculators and budget books, accounting for every penny while our Labour counterparts live for the moment, affording luxury with their credit cards.

Penny pinchers just don’t have the same appeal. We often don’t like what's good for us, but sometimes things have to get worse to get better.

As the age of austerity falls on the British Isles, the country bemoans the Conservative edition of Cutting It. Cuts are good for you. Cutting out carbs has the greater long-term result of a lean, mean, bikini body, and cutting down on hours glued to the TV set or Smart phones has the added benefit of preventing the wearing of jam-jar thick glasses (wish I’d known sooner).

But cuts can go too far... and it seems my party has cut too close to the bone in Wandsworth.  The south London borough, which boasts Britain’s lowest council tax, is asking its residents to cough up to use a children’s area in Battersea Park. I kid ye not. So much for encouraging children to be more active.

Wandsworth have clearly decided against increasing tax and instead are simply going to scrap everyday services to save costs. Are they hoping that sneaky little demands here and there won’t be noticed? How long will it be until bin emptying is a separate direct debit transaction? Or street lights require a two pound coin to last until morning?

Parents will have to find £2.50 for their kids to roll around some well-kept grass and have a pay-as-you-go turn on the monkey bars under plans to keep Battersea’s park open - for business. The park’s amenities are being used as a commercial venture.

The question is whether people are prepared to stump up rises in council rates so that services such as parks are preserved free of charge. It seems to me that Wandsworth have kept their tax artificially low - and are introducing this charge to make up the difference in their parks budget. But Wandsworth is not giving its residents enough credit. I am sure that parents would pay to keep children’s play areas open with a rise in their rock bottom council tax. There is still such a thing as community spirit, even in London. For example households near my home each contribute £80-a-year to keep their little park pristine, partly because the council refuses to look after it.

I’m sorry but council tax should provide the following: parks, clean streets and the police. How funny then that Wandsworth, who believe in surcharging their residents for enjoying park life, believe it too. Their website proclaims “Council Tax is a form of local taxation that helps pay for local services, such as parks, street cleaning and the police.”

When kids must pay to play in a park you know the cuts have gone a little bit too far. The Conservatives are right to aim at overspending, but their aim is a bit awry. This is a tax on children’s fun.

And it’s not just Wandsworth Council that sees parks as a soft target. Just across the Thames is Hurlingham Park, where the Tory-run Hammersmith & Fulham Council have proposed to charge park-goers using it for professional purposes – be they nannies, dog walkers or personal trainers.

Of course we shouldn’t scrap our plan to tackle debt and the mess Labour left, but we need to seriously sit down and work out just what we really need. Was spending £250 million on a referendum that bored the public a wise use of funds?

And all the while we are sending hundreds of millions of pounds to countries like oil-rich (and corrupt) Nigeria, nuclear armed (and corrupt) Pakistan and India, which is not only one of the world’s fastest growing economies but also has its own nuclear and space programmes. We cannot justify such donations. However harsh this may sound, in our climate of cuts foreign aid is not a priority.

That is why Liam Fox was right to stand up against Cameron’s big idea to enshrine in law the amount we donate to the Third World. We have to help ourselves, our soldiers and our public workers before we help others. It’s all well and good living up to the parable of the woman giving everything she had but sometimes it pays to be selfish.

We are struggling to negotiate a path through this era of cuts. We cut what we shouldn’t, and spend on things we oughtn’t. While we mustn’t return of the reckless spending of Labour, we don’t want to be disciples of Scrooge either.

Tags: Conservatives, Cuts, Wandsworth

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