Thursday 17 February 2011

Full Council - Annual Budget

Many of the headlines around the budget debate at Shire Hall this week have been about the protesters.  I don't mind genuine protest when it is done in a sensible way, it keeps Councillors focussed.  But, I object to what went on. Let's start with the decision to blockade the road junction into Shire Hall.  Yes that disrupts people, stops officers getting into work and I'm sure the protesters thought it was a jolly wheeze; but it also stopped members of the public getting in, for an example someone that wanted to register a birth or a death.  Does someone that needs to register a death deserve that sort of additional hassle at what is already a stressful time?

The disruption at the meeting included heckling a humanist who was speaking during what is normally the prayers part of the meeting.  Is he part of the Democratic process?  No he isn't.  At one point someone called him Judas!

Another person who was shouted down was a lady who had come to ask a question about subsidised buses, yet again unfair and uncalled for.  I hope Richard Taylor publishes the video of her magnificent response (I recall it as something like "I Will have my say").   Richard Taylor is an independent blogger who was given permission to film the whole meeting.

Of course the frequent interruptions to the meeting were a pain, but I've seen and heard worse.  What I found odd was that the barracking included a frequent claim that democracy was happening in the public gallery and not in the chamber.  Strange given that no-one up in the gallery had, to my knowledge, been elected, neither had they exercised their democratic right to ask a question at the Council meeting.  The protesters could have behaved in a different way and made a solid point, but they turned up with the intention of disrupting.  I suspect, to them, knocking a police officer's hat off is just part of the game, the messages that sort of behaviour sends to others is probably irrelevant.

I actually thought there was some good debate yesterday and some good challenge.  But I remain disappointed about the Liberal Democrat amendment which was nowhere near sufficiently evidence based. When someone from the opposition has to stand up and say the equivalent of "we really have worked hard on this, honest!" It says to me that they are struggling.   They never justified my challenge that the St Neots funding fudge was just pushing a problem to the right so they could ignore other tough decisions - they did say that the financial arrangements were just playing with money and wouldn't affect the St Neots federation - but that is only half the picture.  The Lib Dems put in a two year budget plan, and then put in an accounting fudge that pushed £1/3m worth of tough decisions into year three - that is a poor way to win an argument. No-one once challenged my claim that one part of their budget was not about what was right or wrong, but because of something I had written elsewhere.  It is the sort of comment that I would normally expect to be instantly rebuffed, the fact that it was not denied once suggests that there was an element of truth in my claim.

I was particularly impressed with the Labour Group Leader Tariq Sadiq's contribution, he was extremely eloquent and (if I remember correctly) failed to support the Lib Dem amendment. The only challenge I would make is that his line that we don't need to make these cuts doesn't wash, people know the situation this County is in and they know the causes, including New Labour's debt which means that we spend more on interest than we do on education.  This is where Labour's claim that we don't need to cut hard and fast falls over.  The longer it takes to clear our debts, the more taxpayers money will be spent on debt rather than services.  That cannot be right.

One of the interesting challenges was over the Lib Dems claim that voters are willing to accept higher Council taxes.  It is an easy argument to make if you live in an area of affluence and have the sort of income that allows you to have a mortgage in Cambridge.  That's not the way it is in Fenland and elsewhere in the County - that thinking has to be included.  The Lib Dems were right that the consultation we carried out did say that, some people would accept higher council tax.  However, the choice is not about that.  Higher Council Tax could mean that we turn down additional central Government funding; shifting more of our long term spending burden onto Cambridgeshire residents when, elsewhere in the country, the burden is shifting the other way.  I suspect if we asked whether that was acceptable, the answer would be no.

The one area where I think we failed to get a message across is in subsidised buses.  It's not that we don't have a message, rather that  it is not about cutting subsidies and leaving nothing behind.  We cannot keep paying bus operators to run empty buses up and down the County, it is not a good use of people's money.  Our intention is to work with all transport providers and to create a different sort of transport system, one that is more responsive and makes better use of, for example, community transport schemes.  We have already had one transport summit that examines this, and we will do more.  The argument that our decisions are just about cuts are fatuous and should be ignored.

Some may not be aware of LGSS.  It is a scheme we have entered into with Northamptonshire to share back office services (such as legal and financial support) as a way of cutting costs and making savings.  It is succeeding, making the maximum savings we had predicted. Another example of Conservative efficiency.   The Lib Dems approach to this showed their difficulty with economics.  Their questioning was all about the need to expand the service and include more local authorities within its umbrella.  The principle behind that has merit - but not in the way they seemed to make their argument, which is growth for growths sake.  If LGSS is to grow and to include others, then it has to be to the benefit of all, just growing and not making additional savings is pointless - and in some cases that could be the result.

Commentators and critics have used words like "armageddon" to describe our financial situation.  One of the difficulties about a debate about cuts is that it is easy to use that sort of language and have an impact.  It's actually not true, yes it's tough and the decisions are uncomfortable and it will affect some people, but it is not the disaster that some have tried to suggest - and I think a good part of that is because of the huge amount of effort that went in to making sure we had got our priorities right.  Of course it's up to us as a Conservative administration to prove that to be the case.  I am sure we will.

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