Conservative Led Coalition Delivers Council Tax Freeze
On Tuesday night Reading Borough Council met to conduct its usual business and debate the first Conservative / Lib Dem budget, after more than 20 years of Labour control. The meeting began with a one minute silence in memory of Cllr Jim Hanley when all Councillors united in paying respects to a much loved member of the Council.
We then received petitions and answered questions from the public and Councillors. Despite the importance of the occasion there was not a single question from a member of the Labour Group! Questions are a time when backbenchers of all parties can ask for information on Council policies and actions and hold the administration to account. When we were in Opposition we spent a considerable time trying to winkle information out of Labour and Council questions are a good way of doing it, especially as you have a supplementary for which the Lead Councillor does not have advance notice. There were several questions from and about the Reading Council for Racial Equality’s funding which were fielded well by my colleague Cllr Jeanette Skeats.
Once questions had finished we moved on to debate the Budget and the setting of the Council Tax for 2011/12. My colleague Cllr David Stevens gave a tour de force pointing out that under Labour the Council Tax rose inexorably every year, usually by substantially more than inflation. He also noted that if all of Labour’s spending pledges and opposition to cuts and efficiencies were added up then Labour would have to increase Council Tax by 30%!
Despite the difficult financial hand dealt to us by the Government, local Conservatives and Lib Dems were determined to deliver the Council Tax freeze we had promised in our Coalition document; a freeze which Labour said couldn’t be done and which they had failed to ever deliver despite the much more generous financial settlements they received when they were in office nationally. During that time of bountiful funding they had also managed to rack up the Council’s debt from £41m in 2001 to £200m in 2010!
Several measures were essential to achieve the freeze. First of all when we took control we ensured strict financial control to prevent the massive in-year over-spends which so characterised Labour’s years. We knew that times would be tough this year and by prudent management we ended the year under-spent by £400k. This is £400k which does not have to be found now when times are harder. Secondly, we began our budget review almost as soon as we took over. We have spent months considering ways of delivering services more efficiently, and whether some services should be delivered by the Council at all. We also considered ways that additional funds could be raised in order to protect frontline services from cuts.
I was very open when we introduced Pay and Display in the town centre (in 198 bays) that this was a way of raising additional funds. As it was a new scheme for Reading Officers were very cautious with their estimate of the funds it could raise but I am very pleased that it is raising considerably more than expected, which has allowed us to take off the overnight charges and make some other parking concessions elsewhere. I was also keen that we should be fair to motorists, which is why short-term Council car park (around 8,000 spaces) charges were frozen last month, and many long term charges cut, in sharp contrast to Labour’s 15% average increase imposed last year.
The rest of the Budget was also carefully crafted and in fact delivers a spending increase over the 2010/11 budget of £1.5m. There is £912k extra for people with Learning Disabilities, £836k extra for Older People’s Services, £250k extra for people with mental health problems, £416k extra for children and families. We also increased the amount of money going to the Voluntary Sector and have restructured the way that much of the money is allocated. For many groups they will now have to apply for funding and submit a case supporting their application. This means that groups like the RCRE will no longer automatically receive one of their block grants and will have to apply with others. RCRE will however continue to receive a large grant for their Alafia project and free office accommodation from the Council. Others like Readibus who provide a well regarded transport service for the elderly and disabled have had their grant completely protected for a further year. The Council has also for the first time provided a substantial grant to the Nepalese/Gurkha community; a community which has done so much for this country and were sadly neglected by Labour.
There is much more I could say about the detail of the budget but will have to save for another posting. Back to the debate in the chamber we were expecting that Labour would move a shadow budget, giving details of how they would have done things differently. This is difficult to do in opposition but Labour have only recently lost office and therefore still have a large amount of experience on their benches. With Officer help they could have moved a budget and pointed out the cuts that they would have made in contrast to ours. However, they didn’t. Instead they moved three rather woolly amendments which clearly had not been well thought through.
We know that Labour spent very little time on these because just last Thursday the Labour Group Leader emailed her amendment and description of tactics to the whole of the Conservative/ Lib Dem Cabinet! In her email it was notable that there was not one mention of the people of Reading, rather she was concerned about her Group’s political position and the “bind” they would be in if any of their amendments were accepted. We saved her that embarrassment by voting down Labour’s amendments as they were either vague and un-costed or simply inaccurate. The fourth amendment came from the Council’s only Green Party Councillor, who wanted to take money out of the small grants pot and give it to RCRE. At least his motion was coherent and costed but it was not one that the Coalition could support. An unusual aspect of the budget debate was that despite all the Greens’ noise about “cuts”, their one Councillor abstained on almost every vote. When he did vote he voted with Labour.
After the Budget was passed the Council turned to debate three motions. The first motion noted Cllr Swaine’s resignation from his role as Lead Councillor for the Environment and appointed Cllr Ricky Duveen to replace him. The second was a typically squalid motion from Labour calling on Cllr Swaine to resign from the Council over remarks he made on Twitter. The motion had no validity as the Council cannot force a Councillor to resign as a Councillor by resolution. Labour were merely moving it to try to score some petty political points against Cllr Swaine and the Coalition. Council Leader Cllr Andrew Cumpsty came well armed with a quotation from the Labour Leader who had defended one of her former colleagues in similar circumstances and was able to point out Labour’s hypocrisy on the matter. There were some very glum faces on the Labour benches at this point.
Finally, the Council debated a motion committing the Council to openness and transparency. After a sometimes fractious evening I had hoped that we would end on a more positive note. Cllrs Bayes and Cumpsty pointed out the administration’s decision to put all invoices over £500 on-line as one example of making the Council’s dealings more transparent to the public. Labour instantly moved an amendment which they said tried to enhance our motion but it contained several inaccuracies and so was voted down. The motion was eventually passed unamended and at around 1140pm the Council meeting closed.