At the same time as giving away millions to the new Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC) Middlesbrough Council’s ruling Independents and Tories agreed budget cuts to a swathe of vital services.
The idea for the MDC was rejected by the council on 24 February at a sparsely-attended meeting. Even the town’s Mayor Andy Preston stayed away, his absence due to a conflict of interest as he owns a property in the MDC zone. Preston is a property developer by trade.
The proposal was rejected by 16 councillors, against 12 in favour. Only the minority Labour group voted against the idea.
But the council has no power of veto on the scheme. On 28 February, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove overrode the council decision and the MDC is now a reality.
The body will be run by a board mostly of local businessmen, chaired by Tory Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. The two other elected board members are Independent Preston and his Deputy Mayor Tory Cllr Mieke Smiles who represents the well-heeled Nunthorpe Ward.
The transfer to the new body of £14.7 million-worth of Council assets is now underway.
We asked the Council press office what the impact on the town’s balance sheet will be. In reply they sent us the Mayor’s Report to Council of 24 February. The document does not explain how the loss of assets worth £14.7 million would be balanced in the accounts. It does state however:
“Transferring multiple assets with significant capital value from the Council to the MDC would however cause a significant reduction in the Council’s asset portfolio value, and therefore the capacity for future borrowing.”
At the same time, the borough is struggling to finance frontline services and faces a shortfall of £14.9 million as they set the new £126.4m budget.
On 27 February Tory and Independent councillors, who together form the majority, agreed £12.4 million of cuts for the next two years.
The council tax raise will be increased to 3.99 per cent.
Turning off street lights
The most obvious impact on all townsfolk will be the plan to turn off over a half of street lights between the hours of 12am and 6am.
Joining the Labour Party in their protest at the scheme to darken the streets is Cleveland Police. In a report to the Council dated 24 February, A/Supt Wendy Tinkler described the dire need to keep full street lighting. She pointed out that the worst affected ward, Newport, which would see 57% of its street lights turned off, has the town’s worst crime rate.
She wrote, “Cleveland has the highest crime rate in England and Wales with 134.9 offences per 1000 population in the year 2022.”
Serious crime in Cleveland is worse than the national average, A/Supt Tinkler reported, with high rates of weapon-enabled violence, domestic abuse and sexual violence. The rate of arson in Cleveland is nearly double the national average.
Two-thirds of Middlesbrough’s violence, she continued, is concentrated in Central and Newport Wards. Central Ward will suffer a 37% loss of street lighting under the new cuts.
The two wards together account for much of Cleveland’s crimes, with 16% of serious violence; 17% of violence with injury offences; 17% of rape offences; 14% of arson endangering life offences, and nearly a quarter of robberies.
The town will see a swathe of other cutbacks including:
- -Increased charges on patients and the NHS for Adult Social Care.
- -Subsidised pest control service to be scrapped
- -A 10 percent rent hike at the Metz Bridge Travellers site which will raise rents by £9.50 a week.
- Council spending on Neighbourhood Safety to be reduced.
- Additional capital investment on Highway Repairs and Maintenance to be halved by £7.5 million.
The council anticipates that external finance will replace council funding in many cases.
Children’s services are not exempt. For instance up for the axe is the subsidy to Bright Stars Nursery.
School dinner charges will rise from £2.15 to £2.40 in primary schools and from £2.25 to £2.50 in secondary education.
Of the cuts, £2.9 million are in Children’s Services, although the sector is due to see investments of £17 million.
The new spending is desperately needed. There are varying estimates of child poverty in the town but in all the research, Middlesbrough is at or near the top of the English league table for deprivation.
The North East Child Poverty Commission showed that 41.2% of the town’s babies, children and young people were living below the poverty line in 2020/21.
In January this year, the All Party Parliamentary Group published its report “Child of the North”. It showed that relative child poverty in the town after housing costs has reached 45%.
Middlesbrough Chief Executive Tony Parkinson announced on 10 March that he was stepping down, a month after 17 councillors called for his resignation.
A government Best Value Notice has demanded an improvement in relations between Preston, councillors and officials. Preston’s relationship with Parkinson is reported to have been fraught.