Wednesday, 17 February 2010

It's a Labour budget, Jim...but not as we know it.

That's what I should have signed off with in my speech to Cabinet last night. But maybe the Star Trek reference would have been lost on the justifiably angry Darlington Borough Council staff and unions who crowded into the public seats and stood up around the room.

While even Conservative controlled North Yorkshire is going for a 3% Council Tax increase, the Labour Group in Darlington, mindful of the marginal status of both their Parliamentary seat and their Council majority, opted for a Council Tax freeze this year. An election gimmick, an election bribe, but, as the union rep, Alan Docherty, said, "I'm wondering just what constituency it is you're going after." Certainly, as he implied, this was a budget which would appeal more to voters in the affluent west end of town than to ordinary working people in the traditional Labour areas.

The Conservatives were not going to speak at Cabinet: after all, this was, as I said, a Conservative budget. However, when I'd spoken, Charles Johnson for the Conservatives really had to speak up and somehow managed to square the circle by saying that if the Conservatives' budget proposals over the previous two years (ie. lower Council Tax increases then) had been followed, there wouldn't have had to be a freeze and redundancies now.

I asked why it had been thought necessary to inflict such stress and anxiety on service providers and users of the Early Years Inclusion Service and the Storysacks charity. Both services were saved, as I'd always said they would be, but why was it even necessary to include these cuts in the first place? Other services are to be reviewed over the coming year, with a view to making efficiency savings in subsequent years. The same should have been the case with these two services: they didn't deserve to have their future squeezed into an emotional couple of weeks of public negotiations, just so that the Labour leadership could claim to be a listening council by saving them.

I also pointed out that the burden of these cuts was being borne by the staff at the bottom of the pyramid: the lowest paid staff who actually provided the services. I repeated what I'd said last year, that the staff on the front-line often know best about how to improve their service, or make useful efficiencies, and they should have been taken along with the process throughout the year, not found themselves bearing the brunt of the cuts without proper consultation.

And so we go forward to Council for the budget to be approved. The Labour Party hasn't got so many friends left in Darlington that it can afford too many evenings like yesterday.


james said...

Does this mean that you back a council tax rise?

Mike Barker said...

James, the opportunity to propose amendments to the MTFP comes at next week's Special Council.

I know you'd love me to tell you, as a member of the Labour Party, what we intend to do. And, of course, I realise it would remain strictly between the two of us. I shall, though, yet again have to decline to answer your question.

We were, as a Group, very upset by the Cabinet forcing the future of the Early Years Inclusion Service into the short budget process. The insensitivity of Labour over this matter has been quite unacceptable. As Councillors, we attended all the consultation events about this service and had close contact with staff in the service. With the honourable exception of Cindi Hughes, no Labour councillors attended any special consultation events to hear the views of service providers and clients.

What I can tell you, is that had Labour continued with its intention of axing this service - and Storysacks - we would have brought forward proposals designed to protect both services. That is no longer necessary.

james said...

It's not a party political thing on my part, Mike. I think that a freeze makes no sense - it won't make a big enough difference to justify the pain it is causing.

Interestingly, where in Liverpool the Lib-Dem council is freezing council tax the Labour opposition is rightly opposing the move.

It's not about what you intend to do, it's what you think of the decision. I think it's mistaken.