Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Budget and Council Tax Rise Agreed and I was nice to some Lib Dems

We had our budget debate at Cambridgeshire County Council earlier this week.  It is normally one of our livelier meetings and certainly was not without controversy.  Surprisingly, one of the least contentious issue was about the Council Tax rise, with broad support for the decision to go for an increase of 2.95% and reject the Pickles Promise.  I have raised this before on my blog, so I don't propose to go back over it.

The Lib Dems were broadly supportive of our Council Tax rise and had (as usual)  managed to miraculously magic money to spray around like confetti on their pet projects.  In fact a major part of that money was £28m they would take away from the development of Northstowe (which is effectively a new Town proposed to the North West of Cambridge).  This money would not stop Northstowe happening and was effectively an investment that gave us a greater say in how the development happen; it should come back into the Council coffers at a later date. One of my criticisms of politicians is that they often fail to learn from the mistakes of the past - one of those mistakes from a Cambridgeshire perspective is that when we developed Cambourne there was a failure to deliver community infrastructure early in the project so people arrived without an easy way of building communities, something that caused significant social problems. In proposing to cut this funding the Lib Dems are in danger of saying they are willing to repeat the same mistake.

From a Whittlesey and Fenland perspective Councillor Alan Melton, the Leader of FDC stood up and reminded Cambridgeshire of the priority that the A605 Whittlesey bypass was and how important it is to economic development for the whole of Fenland.

In some ways my own Cabinet Portfolio got a bit of a rough ride. Not because of the ambition and vision that I outlined for Adult Services.  In fact two of the Lib Dems talked about the sort of need for change that I have been espousing for some time - and I thanked them for that, but because the scrutiny committee  report presented to Full Council about Adult Services expressed some cynicism about the budget. I have no issue with that, the history of Adult Services budget is not good, so some concern is to be expected.  However, I did point out that circumstances are different, that there is a renewed drive for change, but also that we had used the Council Tax increase to invest an additional £12m over three years into the budget to help deal with past problems and make sure we had the space to invest in prevention and transformation.  

What was interesting for me was that the Lib Dems were able to stand up and point to that scrutiny report, but not one of them was able to say that their budget identified the solution.  Adult Services is 40% of the Council's spend, yet the Liberal Democrats had put virtually nothing into it from the millions they claimed to have identified for investment - probably because investing in Adult Services was not a headline grabber.  I made that point at the meeting and the body language from the opposition benches showed that they knew I was right (heads down, furtive sideways glances - that sort of thing).

One of the more controversial aspects of the day was a vote to curtail the debate on the Lib Dem alternative budget and to have it put to the vote early,  I supported that vote after listening to some of the comments from my colleagues, but with hindsight I am not sure it was the right thing to do.  There is a danger that those sorts of votes create the headlines, when actually they should be about the budget and what was, for the most, an extremely healthy debate.  That said, we were at a point where we had spent some 6 hours talking about the budget ,a sizable proportion of which was spent on the Lib Dem proposals.

Despite the 2.95% Council Tax rise, it needs to be said that savings still have to be made in the next financial year - including in Adult Services (which will still have a tough year). It is my belief that the money we are able to generate from having a higher Council Tax rise minimises the impct of those cuts, but also that it provides scope for necessary capital investment that will drive the County forwards. As a Fenland resident, it is probably the superfast broadband project, the investment on the College of West Anglia site and the completion of our Building Schools for the Future programme that I am looking forward to most - but there is something in there for the whole County.

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