Last week, the Conservatives and Independents who control Hartlepool Borough Council decided to once again raise council tax by 5% for our residents. At the meeting where we voted, I was proud to stand up for my constituents and my town as I discussed the effects of such a decision and, before I was told I had run out of time to speak, suggest some potential solutions that would alleviate the costs.
After discussing the fact that almost half of Hartlepool’s children live on or below the poverty line, I was accused of partaking in a bad party political broadcast by the Chair of Children’s Services – one might have thought he would have been a bit more sympathetic considering his role! I was also accused by the leader of the local Conservative party of conducting a “pantomime performance”. All well and good for those who are safe in their castles in the nice parts of town, but what about those who don’t have that luxury and face the harsh realities of life under a detached Conservative administration?
With all the shouts of “where are Labour’s suggestions, then?”, it would probably serve the local Tories well to quieten down and take note of the several suggestions my colleagues have put forward over the past year that would make huge savings on our finances. Or perhaps they should remember that they are the ones in charge and should not be relying on the opposition they so overtly loathe to solve their problems for them. Either way, I’d like to publish my speech in full for you to read and consider our situation, though slightly edited to make more sense in print. My suggestions may not be right, nor may they actually be practical, but I am only human, and any potential solution must be worth a discussion before picking the option that harms our townspeople most, right?
But first, some context of why I wanted to speak up. Across the town, and indeed across the North East and the nation, people are struggling to survive. With rising food costs, energy bills, and inflation, mostly thanks to the selfish decisions of three failed Prime Ministers and four failed Chancellors, many were already running out of answers on how they can get by. Now throw in an unavoidable tax increase. An increase that hits everybody the same, no matter what comes home in your wage packet, therefore harming the lowest earners in town the most without any solution.
This time it is different. As people struggle through the cost-of-living crisis, more and more families are finding their standards of living collapsing. Pensioners petrified to put their heating on and risking freezing to death. Business owners shutting up shop because they can’t afford to keep the doors open. Once middle-class workers selling cars because they can’t afford the petrol. And perhaps worst of all, children forced to go to school without a morsel of food in their stomachs, literally starving because of this Conservative government’s reckless decisions and now this Conservative and Independent ran council toying with the idea of throwing more fuel on the fire by yet again bumping up taxes.
It was recently announced that in Hartlepool, child poverty has almost hit 40% on average, contributing to the fact that our region has the worst rates of child poverty in the UK. Almost half of this town’s children are living on or below the poverty line. How on earth anyone who sits in that chamber can sleep easy at night on those numbers is beyond me. We had the giving tree in the town centre to help get presents for those less fortunate over the Christmas period and all these kids ask for are the littlest things. What we’d deem as everyday necessities or bits we could take or leave; they see as a luxury and are so grateful to have. Things like bath bombs, fluffy pyjamas, a doll, or for one six-year-old, a £1 selection box in case Santa didn’t come. Little things, cheap and easy to get, yet still their families cannot afford them at this point, let alone after this increase.
Most of these kids are the kindest and most polite people you could ever meet. I know this because over my teaching career, I have worked with many who find themselves in this situation. It is the most heart-breaking thing you can experience, as they are simply happy to be at school, with friends, have some normality, be warm and fed, and be equal amongst their peers. We should not be letting this go on and risk another increase in these levels by further attacking people’s incomes. It is simply inhumane to gamble with lives like this when there are other avenues we could investigate.
Anyone who has witnessed a debate or meeting between Hartlepool’s councillors will be well aware that there are some members who refer everything back to party politics, as if it is the only argument they have to offer. So, I wanted to jump the gun and open this play for them and discuss the politics of their decision. To do this is completely unconservative and goes against what the Tory party used to stand for and be known for doing. Actually, let me clarify that, by that I mean raising taxes.
Starving children is very much on brand in the history of the Conservative party, even recently when the national party was shamed into extending free school meals by a footballer. The nasty party once again in full swing. Also, members should have known how unpopular a move this was and that many of those who voted in favour of this motion will find themselves either this upcoming election or the one after begging the people they let down to vote for them, no doubt arguing that “it wasn’t our fault, we swear!” As per their leaflets last year “don’t blame us for the problems in Westminster”. But from the decisions made while they have been in charge, the pattern is clear. To paraphrase one of their idols, Lady Thatcher, “the problem with this Tory/independent council is that they always run out of other people’s money”. With services being slashed, but taxes still rising, people will rightly question what exactly this party stands for. Someone should have suggested that they save themselves the embarrassment of once again blaming someone else and begging for forgiveness, as well as saving their constituents money by not going ahead with this increase.
Now, onto solutions. Again, let me make this perfectly clear, I’m only 23 and often reminded by those older than me that I’m still a bit wet behind the ears. Add that to the fact I have only been a sitting councillor since October, it’s obvious that a lot of experience I have not, yet I still think it is worth raising these points as they may work or could be developed into a different option to raising council tax year after year. For example, while it was nice to be selected to host the Tall Ships, was it really necessary? According to a freedom of information request, the 2010 event also in Hartlepool cost our council £3.7 million. No doubt this will increase this time due to increased costs and inflation.
Was this money we had to spare? Is it an investment that is going to pay off in profit that can be reinvested? Or did we gamble with money we didn’t have?
Once again, I find it funny that this is a Conservative party decision that goes against their once-core beliefs of sound money. I wonder what the view would be of those members of an individual facing massive debt deciding to purchase a new flat screen TV, iPhone or even a £16 million film studio to bring themselves a bit of Hollywood glamour. I doubt it would be a positive one. This is a nice luxury to have, however, when we didn’t have the money to put the Christmas lights on, was it really necessary to be this frivolous? Surely there are better projects for us to invest this level of money into that actually act as an investment and will over time provide funds for us to use in future, instead of funnelling public money time and time again into vanity projects like Church Street. Why choose these options and force us to go through another HBC Tax Groundhog Day?
Another solution which I am told has been approached, but to what extent I am not sure, why has the council not asked our MP, Jill Mortimer, and the government to step in and award us some much-needed funds, especially when they are pummelling money into private business ventures for the friends of Houchen in Stockton and Middlesbrough, then claiming it’s levelling up for Hartlepool. I refuse to believe that when we already have one of the highest council tax rates in the nation and each year we see rise after rise that this council has properly attempted this step and if not, why not? When Hartlepool returned a Tory MP to a Tory majority government and a Tory-led council, alongside a Tory Tees Valley Mayor, we were promised levelling up. Well, it seems the only things that have levelled up are our bills and child poverty. What a legacy!
Jill Mortimer, MP
And speaking of Jill, she was nowhere to be seen at the meeting, despite her being invited once again. Imagine my shock on the night noting her absence… I had thought that she was on another taxpayer funded first class train to Thirsk, but it turned out she was in Strasbourg working with the ECHR. What a look for a pro-Brexit MP in a heavily Brexit voting constituency! Maybe she was looking for future employment in case her lack of attendance and contempt for our town comes back to bite her on the backside at the next general election. One can only hope and that we finally get some representation in Parliament. Perhaps she would like to put a map on her expenses so that she can at least find us in little old Hartlepool. I can’t understand why she wouldn’t turn up to such an important meeting. Though to be fair, she’s not turned up to many before so at least she’s consistent! Maybe we should budget in a photographer and tell her it’s a good opportunity for a photo-op. Does she have more important matters to attend rather than representing her constituents? Is she too busy on her farm in Thirsk to even think about visiting the place she promised to move to two years ago? Or is it that the rumours of cracks behind the scenes between the MP and her councillors are true and that they as a party can’t even work together for the good of the town?
Surely, it would have been beneficial to us all for her to attend this meeting, as well as the others where our town’s difficult finances were discussed, to see what problems we face and take the feedback with her back to London. The message from her colleagues in the council should have been clear and obvious. Get here, get listening, and get it sorted! After years of not requesting assistance, surely, we are long overdue a bit of help from the government and if they say no, then let’s keep lobbying them and at least look like we’re trying to help the good people of this town.
Once again, this body found itself in the situation where it just picks the option easiest for the Tory and Independent councillors. To save them from doing a bit of work contacting their mates in Westminster. Either that or they too expect their own party, the ones who have overseen over a decade of austerity and struggle, to say no and let the people of Hartlepool down once again.
Try all possible outlets
It may turn out we unfortunately have no other choice than to raise the tax, however at least we could then say we tried all possible outlets before going down that route. I know the good, honest people of this town will have been far more understanding of an increase in that situation. We should not be pulling that trigger at the first obstacle and if members had any sense of decency and respect for the people of this town, if they wanted to prove to their constituents that they do not hold them in contempt, they would have at least postponed this decision until we as a body can say there is no other solution.
But they didn’t. Because deep down they know their government would say no and the result would be the same. After all, we in the North East have been robbed of so much in the past decade, especially in Hartlepool. With closures of our hospital, jail cells, court, the stripping down of many more of our assets, and the rising costs of living taking more of our stagnating wages, we are facing a sad conclusion to our history. People can’t be born in Hartlepool. They can’t afford to live here. Victims cannot see justice in their town. And unless they are lucky enough to pass away peacefully at home in their sleep, chances are their death certificate won’t say Hartlepool either. I’m of the majority thinking enough is enough. We and our town deserve better. We deserve to be looked after. But until those glory days return, let’s stick together as we always do and “Never Say Die.”