Lib Dem council leaders attack Pickles over speed and scale of cuts

Over ninety senior Liberal Democrat councillors have written to The Times (£) today, attacking the front-loading of local government cuts imposed by central government. The letter is as interesting for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. Despite the spin placed on the letter by the BBC this morning, the letter does not deny either the need for cuts, nor the deficit which has required them. Rather the letter argues that the cuts are too big and proceeding too quickly, and that councils could protect more frontline services and save more money in the long term if spending reductions were carried out in a more controlled manner. The senior councillors are stating publicly what many Lib Dems in local government  have been muttering for a while: that councils recognise that they must play their part in reducing the national deficit and controlling spending, the speed and depth of the cuts to government grants have left local authorities with little room to manoeuvre.

The attacks have centred on the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, EricPickles, who despite his local government background is widely seen as not having put up a fight for his own departmental spending and having been too keen to offer cuts. The letter is scathing about  the seeming inability of Pickles to work with local councils to promote efficiencies and minimise the impact of the cuts on vulnerable people. The Secretary of State has kept a public silence over the letter, leaving Lib Dem Communities Minister Andrew Stunell to call on the party not to fall out over “pointless debate”.  Stunell said, “Whilst I fully understand the real challenges councils face I think it will be much better to direct all our energy to solving these problems rather than falling out between ourselves”. The full text of the letter is reproduced below.

Sir, Local government is playing its part in tackling the country’s deficit and advancing the Coalition’s aims of localism and the Big Society. But local, and central, government are being let down by the Communities and Local Government Secretary who appears unwilling to lead the change that’s so desperately needed. Local government has made efficiency savings of 3 per cent in each of the past eight years — in stark contrast to the runaway spending of central government under the previous administration. We’ve also been planning for further saving since the true state of the economy became apparent six months ago.

What has been delivered is a difficult cuts package across all government departments but clearly the most severe is to local government. These cuts will have an undoubted impact on all frontline council services, including care services to the vulnerable.

Rather than assist the country’s recovery by making public-sector savings in a way that can protect local economies and the frontline, the cuts are so structured that they will do the opposite. The local government settlement will take a major hit in this coming financial year and further, smaller, cuts in subsequent years. This front-loading means councils do not have the lead-in time necessary to re-engineer services on a lower-cost base and ease staff cuts without forced, expensive redundancies. Inexplicably, local government is also being denied the opportunity to spread the cost of reorganisation and downsizing over several years — at no cost to central government — which just makes even bigger in-year cuts inevitable The Secretary of State’s role should be to facilitate necessary savings while promoting the advance of localism and the Big Society. Unfortunately, Eric Pickles has felt it better to shake a stick at councillors than work with us.

Local and central government should be united in a shared purpose. Instead of chastising and denigrating local authorities through the media, the Government should deploy all its efforts to help councils minimise the impact on vulnerable communities and frontline services.

We would be delighted to discuss with the Secretary of State how we could take on the difficult challenges shared by all levels of government and would prefer to do this than continue with the gunboat diplomacy which is the current order of the day.

The signatories to the letter are: Cllr Richard Kemp, Leader, Liberal Democrat Group, Local Government Association;

Council Leaders: Cllr Carl Minns, Hull City Council; Cllr Cec Tallack, Milton Keynes; Cllr Paul Tilsley, Deputy Leader Birmingham City Council; Cllr David Faulkner. Newcastle City Council; Cllr Ian Marks, Warrington Borough Council; Cllr Virginia Gay, North Norfolk; Cllr Andrew De Freitas, North East Lincolnshire Council; Cllr Tim Carroll, South Somerset; Cllr Stuart Langhorn, Lancaster City Council; Cllr David Watts, Broxtowe BC; Cllr Tony de Vere, Vale of White Horse; Cllr Keith House, Eastleigh BC; Cllr Anne Turrell, Colchester (NOC); Cllr Sian Reid, Cambridge City; Cllr Alan Connett, Teignbridge DC; Cllr David Budd, Purbeck DC; Cllr Ann De Vecchi, Lewes DC; Cllr Dorothy Thornhill, Watford Mayor; Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Leader, Portsmouth City Council

Group Leaders: Cllr Alan Boad, Warwick DC; Cllr Gavin James, Basingstoke & Deane BC; Cllr Tom Smith-Hughes, Essex CC; Cllr Joe Abbott, South Tyneside; Cllr Roger Hayes, Bolton MBC; Cllr Peter Wilcock, Uttlesford BC; Cllr Simon McDougall, Arun DC; Cllr Brendan Haigh, Newark & Sherwood DC; Cllr Nigel Martin, Durham; Cllr Hilary Jones, Derby City Council; Cllr Linda Redhead, Halton; Cllr Sue Carpendale, Babergh DC; Cllr Iain Sharpe, Watford BC; Cllr Kathy Pollard, Suffolk CC; Cllr Maureen Rigg, Stockton; Cllr John Boyce, Oadby & Wigston BC; Cllr Andrew Smith, Chicester DC; Cllr Phil Taylor, Tewkesbury BC; Cllr Len Gates, Test Valley BC; Cllr Ruth Davis, South Gloucestershire; Cllr Tony Gillam, Gedling BC; Cllr Chris Maines, Lewisham BC; Cllr David Milsted, North Dorset DC; Cllr Roger Price, Fareham BC; Cllr Brian Greenslade, Devon CC; Cllr Ian Stewart, Cumbria CC; Cllr Richard Andrews, West Oxfordshire DC; Cllr Margaret Rowley, Wychavon DC; Cllr Ann Buckley, Havant BC; Cllr Jane Parlour, Richmondshire DC; Cllr Alan Sherwell, Aylesbury Vale DC; Cllr Graham Longley, Southend BC; Cllr Zoe Patrick, Oxfordshire CC; Cllr Brian Jeffries, East Riding of Yorkshire; Cllr Bob Sullivan, Waltham Forest BC; Cllr David Lomax, High Peak BC; Cllr Paul Coddington, Doncaster MBC; Cllr Liz Tucker, Worcestershire CC; Cllr Simon Ashley, Manchester City Council; Cllr Roger Walshe, Sevenoaks DC; Cllr John Fisher, Staffs Moorlands; Cllr Paul Morse, Norfolk CC; Cllr Jane Clark, Wealden DC; Cllr Christina Jebb, Staffordshire CC; Cllr David Walker, Charnwood BC; Cllr Noel Rippeth, Gateshead; Cllr Penny Otton, Mid Suffolk DC; Cllr Nan Farmer, Carlisle; Cllr David Foster, Blackburn with Darwen; Cllr Dr Robin Studd, Newcastle under Lyme; Cllr Peter Chegwyn, Gosport BC; Cllr Richard Sharp, Woking BC; Cllr Mary Baldwin, Bucks CC; Cllr Jerry Roodhouse, Warwickshire CC; Cllr David Neighbour, Hart DC; Cllr Arthur Preece, Hartlepool BC; Cllr Nigel Hartin, Shropshire CC; Cllr David Neve, Tunbridge Wells BC; Cllr Geoff Welsh, Blaby DC; Cllr Roger Kutchinsky, Hertsmere BC; Cllr Ross Henley, Taunton Deane BC; Cllr Jack Cohen, Barnet BC; Cllr Julie Morris, Epsom & Ewell; Cllr Terry Stacy, Islington BC; Cllr Alex Perkins, Canterbury City; Cllr Geoff Chamberlain, East Devon DC; Cllr David Fearn, Derbyshire Dales DC; Cllr Helen Dyke, Wyre Forest DC; Cllr Paul English, Craven DC; Cllr Paul Elgood, Brighton & Hove; Cllr Paul Hodgkinson, Cotswold DC.

Sara Bedford is an Executive Member and Portfolio Holder for Sustainability on Three Rivers District Council, which has been Lib Dem run since 1999.

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This entry was posted in Local government and News.


  • Sunder Katwala 10th Feb '11 - 12:50pm

    Sara’s post is right to say that the letter accepts the principle of deficit reduction, and expresses support for the principles of the big society. I don’t see why that makes the BBC’s reporting inaccurate, or that of The Times, since anybody can see that the letter is a significant policy and poltiical intervention from senior local politicians intended to make two substantive points:

    (i) The local govt cuts are quicker and deeper than they need to be, and will damage local services more than necessary because of this. There are two points: the larger cuts to the DCLG budget, and (even accepting that) the decision to frontload the cuts.

    (ii) That these councillors find Pickles impossible to work with, and believe the greater damage that the cuts will do reflect his decisions, and his combative style. The language of the letter “gunboat diplomacy” is very damning for a collective intervention of this kind.

    Clearly, the clashes between the senior LibDem council leaders and Pickles are partly about ideology and politics, and party about personality.

    But it is difficult to see why anybody could regard the point about the scale and especially front-loading of the cuts as “pointless” (except in the sense that the advocacy needed to take place ahead of the CSR settlement, and that it might seem too late now, unless there is an emergency intervention) since its an absolutely central issue.

    The arguments against frontloading are quite separate to the argument about the scale of deficit reduction being pursued (whether the Full Osborne, or half of that on Darling’s plans). As the letter cogently sets out that it would be possible to make a similar contribution to deficit reduction with less damage to services if one doesn’t need to have made the largest savings in the first budget (which must be in force very soon after councils had the details of the settlements), and that making savings in this way will often be more expensive (eg immediate redundancy payments, rather than being able to manage a reduction in workforce over a couple of years, etc, etc)

    So why are the cuts front-loaded in this way? It is difficult to disagree with the letter’s critique. It would be better if Andrew Stunnell were to acknowledge the importance of the policy question rather than to seem to dismiss it, or otherwise explain why the front-loading makes sense. Pickles seems to be arguing the cuts won’t happen if they aren’t frontloaded, but the letter effectively critiques this argument.

    But the problem is that, to judge by the account of David Laws and others, the Liberal Democrats did not seem to negotiate at all over the scale or pace of deficit reduction (accepting Osborne’s plan over Cable’s, without seeking to mitigate it, whether for political reasons, fear of Greece, etc) in forming the Coalition, despite this being easily the most important public policy issue in the country.

    Secondly, within that, the government has accepted the front-loaded plan for local government. We probably need to know more about whether or not this was contested within the CSR process. Public LibDem advocacy is potentially a good thing, especially if local Conservatives might feel some pressure to voice these concerns too.

  • “Over ninety senior Liberal Demcorat councillors have written to The Times (£) today”… in hope of avoiding a total wipeout at the local elections.

    I don’t think it’ll work, but what the heck I suppose it’s worth a try.

  • why is it pointless? I can only think it must be because the government mind is already set and thus have no interest in hearing from those people who have to implement their policies or because Lib Dems have no real influence in government?

  • In breaking news, Turkeys discover they don’t like the concept of Christmas. To late come May your all going to find out how much cuts really do hurt.

  • They sound like pre-6th May Lib Dems to me. Did someone forget to tell them that during coalition negations Lib Dem economic policy changed from “the Tories will cut too fast and too deep” to “the Tories have it %100 correct! Greece! No money left! National emergency!”?

  • So it’s ok to describe the BBC’s reporting as spin yet also ok for you not to comment about Andrew Stunell dismissing the whole thing as ‘pointless debate’……I’m sure that really impressed some hard working Lib Dem supporters…..

  • Peter Chegwyn 10th Feb '11 - 2:53pm

    As one of the Council Group Leaders who signed the letter to The Times might I add that I did so not just to protest about Eric Pickles but also to protest about the way many local council services are being cut with enthusiasm by Conservative Party councillors who support the crude attacks on local government made by Mr. Pickles himself.

    In common with many other Liberal Democrats I’ve spent much of my adult life campaigning to improve frontline public services and protect them against Conservative (and Labour) cuts. It pains me to now see many valued services being systematically demolished by Conservatives who don’t give a damn about the effect their cuts will have on the most vulnerable members of society.

    Liberal Democrats were not elected to do the Conservatives’ dirty work for them. When over 90 of our Council and Council Group Leaders put their heads above the parapet to voice their concerns, our Parliamentary Leadership would do well to listen.

  • Liberal Neil 10th Feb '11 - 2:57pm

    @Andrew & Andy – I think there is a strong case for giving councils a bit longer so that they can make better long term savings.

    The downside of making major changes too quickly is that they push up redundancy costs, whereas changes made over a slightly longer period may significantly reduce the number of compulsory redundancies. It also means that councils will be rushing into making major changes rather than taking time to get them right.

    My local district council has reduced its running costs by about £1m pa (a substantial proportion of its spending) by establishing a joint senior management team with the neighbouring (Tory) district and by going for a joint waste collection service with them too. But this has taken three years to happen, and because they took time to get it right, reduced potential redundancy costs dramatically.

    I believe that there is a lot of scope for other councils to make similar arrangements, but I also want to see them get it right.

  • I see no Iceberg 10th Feb '11 - 3:13pm

    “might I add that I did so not just to protest about Eric Pickles”

    You shouldn’t have to.
    Pickles ‘behaviour’ is already becoming legendary and it should be Nick Clegg who has enough knowledge of possible coalition friction points and have the influence to get Cameron to have a quiet word with his more ‘bullish’ Ministers. Those Conservative Ministers who conveniently forget they are in a coalition when they are looking to move up the ladder by impressing Conservative backbenches and the right wing press with their ‘toughness’.

    Been no sign of that so far though. You have to wonder if Clegg even tries anymore.

  • Gareth Epps 10th Feb '11 - 3:17pm

    I have commented briefly elsewhere. I certainly would have signed the letter had I been asked to do so.

    Neil is right to say that redundancy costs are being pushed up by the speed and scale of the cuts. Attempts to reduce running costs through joint procurement and joint service delivery are laudable but are vulnerable to delays and internal resistance.

    A couple of days ago I put up a piece on LDV which highlighted one way in which I believe Reading has got some of this new politics right. But Reading has no reserves (frittered away by Labour; instead we have £1,000 of capital debt per Borough resident), although Cameron’s West Oxfordshire last time I looked had enough stashed away to be able to receive no grant at all for the whole of this Parliament.

    Meanwhile, Pickles has given an object lesson in buffoonery, how to lose friends and alienate people. Had he treated his own department the way he treats those in receipt of his budget, we all might be a bit more sympathetic.

    Rather than make naive and unjustified attacks on the people that got him to where he is, Nick Clegg would do well to sit down with Liberal Democrat local government leaders and have a proper discussion about what is going wrong, and what is needed to put it right. The same lesson that should be learnt from the appalling treatment of the very able Matthew Oakeshott, in fact.

  • Topoftheleague 10th Feb '11 - 3:44pm

    Lib Dem councillors will be the first to take the electoral hit that is coming the Lib Dems way, in the local election in May (along with the Scottish and Welsh legilatures elections).

    No suprise that some of them wish to put distance between themselves and the part of the party in government,

  • Mark Steel got the Local Government cuts and Big Society right in The Independent and i yesterday, 9th Feb.

    I can’t get the link to copy, but if you google independent mark steel you can download his piece headed The Caring, Sharing Way to Bad Times.

  • gramsci's eyes 10th Feb '11 - 4:52pm


    I am afraid your link is simply short on detail.

    However, I take it you belong to the “challenge Anneka” school of economics.

    “we must build this orphanage in 24 hours” – why?

  • Poppie's mum 10th Feb '11 - 5:43pm

    Sounds like these Lib Dems are a bit out of date, expressing what the Lib Dems told us about cuts before May 6th,

    Wise up lads and ladies, your party now sings to a very different hymn sheet these days, and no amount of letter writing is going to make you seem any more attractive when you turn up on our doorsteps saying ‘vote for me’.

    Either get it together and give Clegg, Alexander & Cable their p45s or face electoral wipeout.

  • Poppie's mum 10th Feb '11 - 5:46pm

    [email protected] “Lib Dem councillors will be the first to take the electoral hit that is coming the Lib Dems way, in the local election in May (along with the Scottish and Welsh legilatures elections).”

    Here in Wales Lib Dems look set to lose two of their four seats.
    We have AV+ so they can’t sqawk about how unfair the voting system is.

  • Interesting I have been called a Labour troll on this site many times for stating similar points. Perhaps they are all Trolls too!!

    The cuts in this area, and in my opinion in others, are too deep and too fast. The cynic in me feels that this was also the case when they were announced and that it is only as elections approach and the scale of public disquiet becomes apparent that they have chosen to speak out.

    Slowing the process can actually save money. As it stands they can have no time to take advantage of natural wastage when reducing staff and have to go for the more expensive redundancy options. They have no time to look for community and third sector support in areas to be cut and in some cases will have to pay exit fees for projects they have started and end up paying a large percentage for something they never receive (a bit like Nimrod only not due to MOD or Labour incompetence) etc etc etc..

    Pickles is everything he appears to be and I have also stated before that this was clearly a job most suited to a Lib Dem minister with their excellent track record in local authorities.

  • I remember last week when some of the new ultra LibDems were attacking the Labour Party over Birmingham Council that I asked the simple question along the lines of what are the LibDems on the council saying and if they come up with a sensible alternative then I would be interested in reading it.

    As usual the ultras ignored it.

    However I’ve just been watching LibDem Clr Tilsley from Birmingham who signed the letter to The Times on telly. Seemed as though he was a decent guy and a real local government kind of guy who cared about people in his area.

    I’m not surprised he signed the letter as he has been betrayed and not by Pickles but by Clegg who is propping up this Tory government to force through their ideological view of Britain which has no interest in people or in communities no matter what weasel words they use – of that was another good LibDem who used those brave words for telling the truth – and Clegg dissed him as well.

    When is this guy going to waken up and realise that they Tories have already removed his heart and now they’re going for his soul and the brain appears to have gone a long time ago although it most c ertainly didn’t go to Alexander Diamond 🙂

  • In Watford we had some measure of Pickles and prepared for what we thought the worst could be. Our expectations were slightly exceeded! In reply to AS, we have made our cuts with a minimum of redundancies (only about 4% of our staff go) and really don’t appreciate that central government has now altered our settlement again (by effectively £4k!) and we now have to officially set our budget for the second time! Note for future – mayoral authorities have to set their budgets early – don’t faff us about.
    Forcing councils into emergency cuts at short notice is not a good way to run a department. Not only do the redundancies and closures soar but the additional pension strain you build up for future years will be crippling. As it is most councils like us will face a difficult years 3 to 5 and you can synergise services all you like (& we have been doing), the long term question for a lot of councils like us will still be, “are we viable?”. The big structural questions in local government will have to be adressed by central government before too much longer.
    As will the question of what chaos the localism bill will cause councils, at a time of great stress for all of us. Will somebody please get a grip of this bill – too many unanswered questions and poor performances at committee stage, where the ability to scrutinise has been frankly disgraceful and an affront to our party. Nick Raynsford hasn’t even had to get out of 1st gear yet and it looks so poor.
    Councils are like supertankers – they need to be gradully turned into the direction that they have to face, otherwise things start to fall apart fast. And we need proper leadership from the bridge, not just someone barking out manic orders, issuing slightly unreal statements and getting his deputies, one in particular AS, to catch the flack.
    It really is time for a strategic rethink in that department. Eric is going to go down in history as the man who killed off the Big Society before it had even started.

  • greg Tattersall 10th Feb '11 - 10:19pm

    One group of vulnerable people are special needs children.Are the lib dems going to let the cuts affect the life chances of a group of very vulnerable children?These kids need all the help they can get.All lib dems should think very hard.

  • Ed The Snapper 10th Feb '11 - 10:43pm

    I need someone to explain to me how making workers redundant is somehow going to reduce the debts and deficit. So the council makes a lowly paid council worker redundant. You have to pay him/her some redundancy money. He/she stops paying tax, NI and pension contributions. He/she claims benefits from the state and local authority. How has that helped to reduce the deficit or pay off the debts? I am sure someone with a PPE can explain it to me but maybe they cannot…

  • @Ed The Snapper
    I suppose it’s cheaper to pay people to do nothing rather than something, except that – as you say – they stop paying tax etc. Since they also spend less, the VAT hike may bring in less revenue than predicted, and some people whose jobs rely on others spending may join their former customers in what used to be called the dole queue.

    Economics has been called the Dismal Science. This government is certainly dismal.

  • Andrew Suffield 11th Feb '11 - 12:48am

    So the council makes a lowly paid council worker redundant. You have to pay him/her some redundancy money. He/she stops paying tax, NI and pension contributions. He/she claims benefits from the state and local authority.

    And if every one of those council workers was a useless sponger who had no interest in working, no useful skills or abilities, and only had a job because the council was paying them to count paperclips in order to keep the unemployment figures down, then you might be right.

    But that’s a rather uncharitable view of the council workers (although depressingly close to Labour policy in some areas – the farce of jobcentres comes to mind) and in reality most of those workers are going to get new jobs pretty fast.

  • Ed The Snapper 11th Feb '11 - 7:12am

    @ Andrew Suffield “But that’s a rather uncharitable view of the council workers (although depressingly close to Labour policy in some areas – the farce of jobcentres comes to mind) and in reality most of those workers are going to get new jobs pretty fast.”

    No, they are not going to get new jobs. There are not enough paid jobs for the millions of unemployed in this country. I have been unemployed recently and I can asure you that there are very few private sector jobs available. The job market is the worst I have known it in 3 recessions. Not surprising. Most of our industries have long gone.

  • Andrew Suffield wrote: “most of those workers are going to get new jobs pretty fast.”

    My local newspaper used to advertise about 800 new jobs every Thursday. Yesterday, it was 230. We are in a deep. deep hole and the coalition’s policy is to carry on shovelling vigorously. The spending cuts that LibDem council leaders are (rightly) complaining about will not only devastate local services, but will also have a serious knock-on effect on the local economy and on the many private firms who supply goods and services to local councils.

    Eric Pickles repeated claims that the necessary cuts can be achieved simply by curbing Chief Executive salaries (which I support) and merging back office staff would be laughable, were the situation not so serious for service users and council staff.

  • Andrew, I am on my way to work right now with the task of laying off two of my staff. Private sector too !

    Bright enthusiastic guys as well. In the meantime I have a steady trickle of graduates asking if the can come and work on an intern basis. Expenses in other words.

    it wouldbe really good if I could give these people constructive advice. Could you let me know what planet you’re living on ?

  • I know it’s of no immediate help, but can someone start a campaign to unseat Pickles?

    Martin Bell, the Man in the White Suit who unseated Neil Hamilton in Tatton back in 1997, fought Pickles in his Essex seat in 2001 and came surprisingly close, miles ahead of the Lib Dems and Labour (he had promised not to stand again in Tatton unless the local Tories re-selected Hamilton – they chose some bloke named Osborne instead).

    Mr Bell will be a bit old by 2015 – a level-headed Essex person (yes they do exist!) would be best.

  • Andrew Suffield:

    “in reality most of those workers are going to get new jobs pretty fast.”

    Talk about triumph of faith over evidence. You often come up with spurious nonsense on here, but that has to top it all.

  • Andrew Suffield:

    “in reality most of those workers are going to get new jobs pretty fast.”

    Can I bill you for the paracetamol I now need after banging my head on the desk during a fit of frustration?

    Actually they will all probably have work …after a year on the dole they’ll all have to do (compulsory) manual work such as road sweeping and picking up litter, type of work the type “lowly paid council workers” used to do.

  • Jobs don’t always come from external employers.

    I know several people for whom redundancy was an extremely positive experience, as it led to them setting up their own business. And then employing others.

  • “redundancy was an extremely positive experience”

    Oh well then, that makes everything alright, all we have to do now is convince the millions without a job it’s actually good for them.
    Sorry for being sarcastic but ‘cmon, for the vast majority it’s nothing of the sort and you know it. Even those who do set up a business the chances of it being successful and surviving the first year are not good especially these days.

  • Having looked through the list of Liberal Group Leaders who had signed the letter to The Times I note the name of Robert Plimmer, the Group Leader in Slough is absent. How disappointing, but not surprising since the Slough LibDems propped-up a Tory dominated coalition in Slough during 2004 to 2008 and were subservient to Tory policies then, and have of late supported the Coalition Government policies in letters to the local press. Sadly extinction is likely in May,

  • Cllr Nick Cotter 13th Feb '11 - 10:40pm

    I would have signed the letter also if I had known of it’s existence ?

    Cllr. Nick Cotter

    Leader of Liberal Democrat Group,
    Leader of Opposition, Cherwell Distrct Council, N.Oxon.

  • Richard Underhill 25th May '16 - 12:43pm

    Councillor David Neve is now Mayor of Tunbridge Wells. He was first elected as a borough councillor in 1987 and was most recently re-elected in 2014, 29 years of continuous service so far. He was recruited as a member by Alfred Baker, present today, now aged 89, himself a former mayor.
    David Neve said “Nobody is too small to get the Mayor involved in what they do.”
    Charity, eating disorders, 0345 634 7650
    Youth-line for under 25s, 0345 634 7650 [email protected]

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