Friday, 27 February 2009

Special Budget Council

Tonight was the annual Special Council Meeting called to approve the Cabinet's budget. It was a strange meeting: less confrontational than last year, as all three party groups acknowledged the severe economic and financial pressures the Council is working under.

Charles Johnson, leading for the Tories, speaking quietly but forcefully, praised Labour for producing a Conservative budget. Alan Coultas made his best speech yet in Council supporting Charles. As usual, Bill Stenson added a little light relief to the occasion, calling for the Civic Theatre to be shut down for part of the year to save money. Thankfully, he was gently repudiated by his party leader.

The debate on the Conservatives' amendment (to increase Scrutiny Committee's involvement in future budgetary decisions) was taken together with Labour's original motion to accept the Medium Term Financial Plan. This happened last year, but on that occasion it had been explained first that that is what would happen. Strictly speaking, according to the Concstitution there should have been two separate debates with the opportunity to speak twice. But Charles moved his amendment at the very start of the debate, thereby curtailing debate on Labour's budgetary proposals. Thereafter, Councillors simply spoke at random about both the budget and the amendment, which speeded up the whole process but also meant each councillor was only able to speak once.

I had expected to speak twice, on the budget motion and on the amendment. Trying to blend the two speeches into one did not make for a fluid speech, especially as, as usual, the boorish Deputy Leader of the Labour Group, Bill Dixon, was allowed to cat call during my speech - which I shouldn't allow to throw me off course, though it did.

I criticised the consultation process, which was quite clearly fixed to produce the answers the Cabinet wanted and which I felt was cynical and manipulative. I also looked forward to next year's budget and asked that not only should scrutiny councillors be involved in the long-term budget process, but that junior level and front line staff be involved in finding the efficiencies and savings which will have to be made. It is often the case that they know better than senior staff and councillors what actually goes on in their departments.

Next year, I suspect, will be even tougher than this year. The public will not accept another 3.5% increase, let alone the 4.9% planned. How the Cabinet achieve this will determine to a great extent how the parties line up as the next local elections approach.