Council Tax Debate and Dirty Tricks
Last night Reading Borough Council met to set the Council Tax rate for the 2010/11 Financial Year. On the table was a proposal from Labour to increase Reading’s Council Tax by 2.2%. This is almost half the increase imposed last year (4%) but still higher than the two neighbouring authorities (Wokingham and West Berks have announced 1.9% increases) and higher than the expected national average of a 1.6% increase.
We Conservatives have had a consistent position of wanting to freeze Council Tax, both last year and this. One of the big surprises of the night was the complete 180 degree U-turn by the Lib Dems who announced that they also wanted a freeze, despite having last year supported Labour’s above inflation increase.
Lib Dem Group Leader Cllr Kirsten Bayes and backbencher Cllr Warren Swaine made speeches saying why a freeze would be right in the current economic difficulties (last year when still diving into recession they said the opposite). Cllr Swaine explained that whilst he had lots of ideas of how to achieve the freeze without cutting front-line services, the fact that Council Officers would not help him develop them meant that the Lib Dems could not propose an alternative budget. Both we and the Lib Dems then voted down Labour’s budget.
All political groups then adjourned several times in succession to discuss the way forward. My group decided that we should test the seriousness of the Lib Dems apparent volte face and so we drafted an amendment that would have adjourned the Council meeting for 24 hours with an instruction to the Council’s Senior Finance Officer to amend the budget to achieve the 2% savings needed to deliver a freeze. We agreed that one condition should be that front-line services should not be impacted by the savings. Areas for savings could include central administration and the publicity budgets.
This draft motion was then put to the Lib Dems, who had some reservations and were clearly divided as to their response. It was while we were concluding our discussion on the Lib Dem response that Labour took the opportunity to force a quick vote on the budget in our absence. They were constitutionally entitled to do so but in previous years even Labour has followed the honourable course of waiting until all of the other parties were present before resuming debate. This time there was no such courtesy extended and the vote was conducted in our absence. Naturally Labour prevailed and their budget passed.
We then had to vote on setting a Council Tax and we voted against Labour’s proposal along with the Lib Dems. So the Council had set a budget but not the Council Tax to deliver it. There was much conferring amongst the Council’s senior officers who eventually concluded that there was a procedural way to reverse the budget decision, but when approached the Lib Dems had no appetite to do so. We therefore accepted that it would be irresponsible to continue to refuse to set a Council Tax as this could lead to major problems in sending out bills and collecting the funds we need to deliver services. We abstained in the final vote in order to allow a Council Tax to be set. The Lib Dems did the same. We finished at 11:40pm, having begun the evening at 6:30pm!
Many of us were incensed at Labour’s conduct. Bouncing a vote as they did, smacks of the desperation with which they have continued to cling onto power in Reading. As someone said to me at the end of the night “what goes around comes around” and if the people of Reading do decide to elect a Conservative administration this May, Labour will not find many of my colleagues willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. The Lib Dems also proved once again to be all over the place both in their budget stance and their response to our attempts to work with them to achieve the freeze.
As I have argued before, a freeze would benefit every Council Tax payer and those on low and fixed incomes the most. Labour mouth the rhetoric of helping the vulnerable but their policies often hurt the vulnerable the most. That is why so often Labour Reading scores poorly when assessed by independent bodies, compared to the best Conservative run councils.
The choice is therefore now even clearer between a Labour run Reading that continue with above average Council Tax increases with sub-standard services and a Conservative run Reading that would get best value for every Pound spent and freeze Council for at least the first year.