Budget day at CCC and it’s going to be a bore

2019-02-05-13.18.58As it happened:

Prospects aren’t good because a protocol has been ‘agreed’ for the meeting which precludes much constructive debate. I say ‘agreed’ because it’s what the majority party, viz the Tories, has decided.

Under normal circumstances a balanced budget emerges from the General Purposes Committee and is then open to amendment during the council meeting itself. This year the Tories have decided that they want to keep their powder dry and so we have an unbalanced budget presented at the council meeting at which the three parties submit amendments simultaneously and are denied the right to poach each other’s good ideas. It all makes for a rather artificial event.

As it is we’ve got a Tory amendment which finds the money to balance the budget this year but does nothing else except flag the need to spend money on highways maintenance next year, a Lib Dem budget that makes both capital and revenue savings so that modest improvements in services can be delivered, and a Labour amendment which squeezes more money out of capital, probably unsustainably, to spend more on services.

1030 and we’re about to start but the Chair advises that we need a 5 minute delay whilst IT problems get sorted. It seems that the ‘live streaming’ isn’t working.

1035 and there’s a group leaders huddle with the CEO to decide what to do. We’re going to start without ‘live streaming’ but we will record the sound which will be posted online later.

As always we start with prayers, very worthy today namechecking several in the council chamber and listing just about every council function and others besides, and then announcements where we pause to reflect on the untimely deaths of the Mayor of Cambridge and of a member of the Council’s staff.

Then there’s an opportunity for one member to ‘clarify’ a statement he made at the last council meeting. He had used the word ‘fraudulent’ in connection with the council’s 2018/19 budget. He explained he did not mean that it was ‘criminally fraudulent’ and that his words did not reflect the opinion of the Audit & Accounts Committee of which he is chair. That seems to satisfy everyone.

There are four questions.

  • Dr Lesley Dee asking about public access through the Shire Hall site after it is vacated.
  • Mr Anthony Carpen who is not present but asked about threatened cuts to the library service.
  • Ms Mischa Rey asking about plans for the Haven (protected housing for vulnerable people).
  • Mr Tom Jefford asking about the premature ending of CCC’s multi-systemic therapy contract with MST.

There are no petitions so now we’re into the subject of the day: the council’s business plan and budget proposals 2019-24.

The GPC’s unbalanced budget is tabled by the Chair at 1115.

Now we get 5 minute speeches from the individual group leaders before we get into the necessary amendments. They are all three unashamedly political. We also get one from the ‘leader’ of the independent ‘group’ and he criticises the Tory leader’s mud slinging approach.

Now for the first of the amendments. This is from the Tories and will of course be voted through so that it will become the substantive motion.

The Tory leader moves the amendment and talks about the positives of the Tories being ‘in control’ and having a ‘clear and coherent plan’. He refers inter alia to £18 million extra investment in highways maintenance.

There’s money in the Tory amendment for highways maintenance in years after the budget year and I speak to applaud this but to note that it’s not funded. Although the Tories had talked of a ‘clear and coherent plan’ they are not planning to fund the extra spending which they propose and that furthermore the quoted £18 million is the sum total over 4 years and not an annual spend.

There’s been little substantive debate but in the summing up it gets a bit fractious with the Tories attacking both Labour and the Lib Dems. Amendment is carried 33 to 22 and 1 abstention (a Lib Dem). Interesting that the Chair votes and does so in favour.

The Lib Dem amendment builds on the Tory one by reducing unnecessary spend, both capital and revenue, to invest more in improving or in not running down services. Specifically it reduces spend on the proposed Alconbury move and on a surfeit of council committees.

We get into quite a rumpus as the Lib Dems are accused of not understanding their own amendment.

I spoke about the Lib Dems proposed savings and especially to refer to my position regarding the Alconbury option. The decision was flawed and premature and needs to reflect the needs of the future as local government evolves. I point to the need to resolve uncertainties before making big decisions.

More fractiousness as the Tories ask that the rules of debate especially as related to points of personal explanation be clarified. All a little petty.

Now for one of the crazy rules of the day. The Tory group leader gets to sum up the other parties’ amendments. And he does so by misrepresenting it. Unsurprisingly the vote is lost 16 (Lib Dems plus one Tory) to 31 with 8 abstentions (Labour).

Now for the Labour amendment which funds extra services from what would seem to be unsustainable sources. It also ignores the highways maintenance funding challenge.

Amendment falls 9 to 33 with 14 abstentions (Lib Dems). Now it’s 1350 and we’re breaking for ‘lunch’.

We’re back at 1430 for more of the same. Now we get to ‘debate’ the motion as amended by the Tory amendment. Repeatedly they say that they’re adding £18 million into highways maintenance but (1) it’s over 4 years, and (2) it’s not funded. I will remind them of this later.

We start with statements from the chairs of the various committees. They are largely self congratulatory. One of these is the chair of the Commercial and Investment Committee of which I am a member. He talks proudly of earning millions in interest from This Land. But that’s interest on money which we’ve loaned to them. It’s really a little light financial slight of hand.

There’s very little debate and we get a suitably defensive summing up from the Leader of the Council, including yet another explanation of what are and what are not reserves. Then the vote which is won 33 to 17 with 2 abstentions (one of which was a Lib Dem). Several councillors have already gone home. Clearly they felt that it would be a poor use of their time to remain.

We move on. We’re into questions for the Combined Authority and its scrutiny committee. We start with one about buses followed by one about the Mayor’s charity dinner and then a second one about buses. Because the relevant report was delivered late the council’s rep on the CA, the Leader, is allowed to respond in writing to the bus questions. The dinner question is redirected to the chair of CA scrutiny who advised that a report had been asked of the CA’s monitoring officer and that more questions have arisen.

That’s it. 1535 and we’re done. There are four written questions. Two relate to the closure of care homes/supported living facilities, one to parking bays and the fourth about the support which the Council will give to vulnerable adults who may need  to apply for Brexit related ‘settled status’.

Postscript: I’m sorry if the above reads a little jaundiced but it was not a good meeting and councillors of all parties were guilty of some pretty petty behaviour. I’m not unhappy with a challenging environment but I’m not happy with the entrenched positions which are now taken. This sadly reflects behaviour in Westminster and it seems that there’s little intention to command the middle ground. This council worked well without a single dominant party during the UKIP years and it’s not good that the lessons learnt then about compromise and alliances have been so quickly forgotten.

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