Richard Willis's Blog

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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.

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February 24, 2011 - Posted by | Local

14 Comments »

  1. Did I miss all the cuts the council is doing….or maybe you deliberately forgot them.I assume you missed off the following as it just passed you by:

    · At an earlier Cabinet meeting it was announced that this will result in the deletion of around 300 posts, with 150 potential compulsory redundancies. £2.2 million will be spent in redundancy payments next year.

    · There will be no Council Tax increase in Reading, so no money will be available to offset the cuts by increasing tax locally. The Council is aiming to increase charges for certain services to increase its income by £3.2 million.

    · This is just the beginning: the cuts will continue for at least three years and the council intends to continue with “cost reduction and efficiency” and maximising income generation. Assuming the Council continues with its policy of freezing Council Tax, savings of £14.2 million will be needed in 2012/13; £9.2 million in 2013/14; and £12.3 million in 2014/15.

    Hitting the neediest hardest

    The Council’s cuts will hit the least well off and most disadvanted people the hardest. Children, the elderly, and people with special needs will all find that their services and care will be reduced. Examples include:

    · Merger of Edward Hughes and Tanfield residential homes and reduced use of other residential accommodation for the elderly will deprive vulnerable pensioners of Council care in their twilight years.

    · Eligibility criteria for elderly people and others with social care needs will be tightened drastically, meaning that many with medium and lower level care needs will no longer receive vital care support from the Council.

    · Cuts in the Early Years Service will result in a reduction in nursery care and services supporting the youngest children.

    · A reduction in school meals subsidy will increase the cost of meals and will reduce meals uptake for those not entitled to free school meals.

    · Increased play charges will result in reduced uptake of play schemes and closures of after school and holiday play provision.

    · Concessionary bus fares for pensioners will be reorganised so that they can no longer travel free of charge during peak hours.

    · Cuts in the Youth Service and Intensive Services and in Prevention and Support Services will mean that services will have to be targetted, resulting in less capacity to respond to areas requiring early intervention and leading to more youth offending and anti-social behaviour.

    · A review of Behaviour Services for children with behaviour difficulties will result in increased school exclusions – and increase associated costs.

    · Cuts in front line education posts and buyback of services for schools from the Council will lead to reductions in service to vulnerable families.

    · Domestic Violence staff levels are to be cut increasing the risks of domestic abuse and leading to abusers escaping the law.

    · Transport services for school children, patients, the elderly, and those in care will be reviewed and cut with Readibus, the NHS, and Reading Buses expected to take up the slack.

    The Council admits that cuts in its Education and Childrens Services budget will increase social care referrals and costs, increase the need to use expensive agency staff; and divert money away from prevention programmes as demand pressures increase.

    From Cleaner and Greener to Leaner and Meaner

    · Cuts in Street Care will result in reduced environmental cleansing and graffiti removal.

    · Charging for the collection of green waste and big increases in charges for collection of bulky waste mean that an increase in fly tipping and rubbish dumping is likely.

    · Cuts in enforcement teams working on Houses in Multiple Occupation, Public Health, Trading Standards, Licensing, and Environmental Health will increase safety and environmental risks for the public. Cuts in planning enforcement and monitoring will enable unscrupulous builders and developers to ignore planning laws.

    Rents up and pay frozen

    · Council house rents will increase by 4.9% (higher than the inflation rate) bringing the average weekly rent to £89.26.

    · Council staff will receive no pay increase in 2011/12

    Comment by Red Rag | February 24, 2011 | Reply

    • Red Rag – A lot of assumptions and misleading statements in your comment there! What would you do? Borrow more? Increase Council Tax?

      If we were to follow Labour’s policy of opposing all cuts and throwing funds at their “friends” Council Tax would have to rise by 30%!

      Comment by Richard Willis | February 24, 2011 | Reply

  2. When you say “Labour throwing funds at their “friends” do you mean services that many people rely on? In the real world they are described as services Richard, in Toryspeak they are described as “Labours friends”.Thanks for the eye opener Richard.

    Comment by Red Rag | February 24, 2011 | Reply

    • You didn’t answer my questions!! 🙂

      Comment by Richard Willis | February 24, 2011 | Reply

  3. On another note Richard. Just read the Daily Mash and it mentions a racism case in a Reading School. If the Moorlands Headteacher wins her case, in the event of damages awarded, where would the money come from? Assuming the Authority loses its appeal ( as one would assume it would try). You see I recall a sort of similar case a few ago and the relevant Authority ended up paying out a heck of a lot of money. Went for appeal but lost that too. Just think of all the legal costs involved and potential damages award. Would Public funds be used to potentially pay for this type of failures? I think the public should know. Over to you on this one for your comments.

    Comment by Jazz | February 24, 2011 | Reply

    • Jazz – I am not sure exactly where the money would come from. I will see what I can find out for you!

      Comment by Richard Willis | February 24, 2011 | Reply

  4. Cllr Swaine motion: On 19/12/2002, I sent the following e-mail to the then governors of New Town School. You can decide for your collective selves how my offence compares and how my reaction compares. And whether I deserve to have this dredged up and thrown around in the press again.

    “In the light of the reports expected to be in this week’s Chronicle, and the Evening Post, and in the light of my explanation below, could you please indicate, perhaps to Sarah, whether you would wish to hold a special meeting of the NTPS Governors to consider the incident below, ask me any questions you wish to, and then to discuss it – with or without me in the room as you see fit. Sarah et al: please try to pass this on to any governor I’ve missed; thank you.
    ==============================================
    After a meeting of the council’s black communities forum last month, I attempted to persuade someone there that if he wanted to be a primary school governor, then New Town needs willing volunteers for governors much more than Alfred Sutton. I attempted to give short description of the challenges faced by the school, and hence why we need more good people to serve as Governors. As part of my description, I most unwisely repeated a phrase used to me by a former governor which that person said was a common local description of the school – and had some truth in it. That person also added that that was not a reason not to support the school and not to seek to provide the best possible education for all its pupils. The phrase in question was “paki school”. I added a further explanation that a lot of the children at the school are pakistani (which is true) (I did not use the word “paki” twice)

    A council officer still present reported the matter to her superiors as a potential racist incident. The Leader of the Council took the matter up with me a couple of days later and I immediately sent a full apology to the officer and her superiors, copied to the Leader of the Council. I tried to copy it to the Forum member, but the e-mail bounced and I could find no obvious reason for that. The leader acknowledged my apology and indicated that my apology and explanation seemed to be sufficient.

    I heard no more until there was an oblique reference by one Governor at last week’s governors meeting. I had to go on to another meeting straight after, but e-mailed late that evening the contents of my apology of several weeks previously, the acknowlegement I’d had from the leader of the Council, and added a footnote concerning if the governor felt my apology was insufficient or not made widely enough. I have had no response to that e-mail.

    Until this morning (Wednesday) I had heard no more until, at 9.30 am, I was phoned by the chief reporter of the Chronicle to say they had been contacted to say a complaint about me had been made to the council, and what was my side of the story. About 3 hours later, the evening post also contacted me and specifically questioned me about the detail of what I had said in my apology. Both got a statement from me expressing genuine regret, remorse, and no denigratory intents, and reference to the amount of work I have done and do for the school and the pakistani community. In the process of taking advice during the morning, I learnt that a written complaint had been made about me to the Chair of the Forum, who had referred the matter to the chief executive and the leader of the council jointly, and the outcome was that the Chief Executive had responded at length to the effect that they’d already had a complaint about the matter, investigated, and my apology accepted. late this afternoon the letter of complaint and the formal response to it were faxed to me, many days after they were written.

    Comment by Christine | February 25, 2011 | Reply

  5. Another point Richard, how did it get to this state of affairs? Why was the headteacher driven to take legal action against the Council? Who is responsible for this escalation? After all, it is the reputation of the Local Authority at stake here.

    Comment by Jazz | February 25, 2011 | Reply

  6. not only that, but the person responsible for the decision at Moorlands School which led to the current situation, the chair of its governing body, Malcolm Powers, holds a very senior position in the Labour Party.

    Comment by janestheone | February 25, 2011 | Reply

  7. Janestheone. Appreciate the point you are making but ultimately it is the Local Authority which has the final say. Isn’t it? one would assume the ultimate responsability lays with the relevant Directorate? Correct me if this is wrong. It is an unpleasant state of affairs for all concerned, must say.

    Comment by Jazz | February 25, 2011 | Reply

  8. Given all the controversy about ‘funding’
    of the RBC trade unions what has been budgetted for in this area.

    Clearly the council will have to allow
    for the unions to carry out their day
    to day industrial relations role.

    Comment by DAVE WARREN | February 26, 2011 | Reply

    • Dave – clearly the Council will have to comply with its statutory duties towards Trades Unions. However, the arrangement will be comparable to our neighbouring authorities and will not include funding three full time offials at the tax-payers’ expense. I have also asked that the Facilities Agreement comes to the Personnel Committee or Local Joint Forum at the start of each Municipal Year so that Councillors are aware of it and can review it. This is marked changed from under Labour when it appears not to have been discussed or reviewed, or Members made aware of it, since 1998!

      Comment by Richard Willis | February 26, 2011 | Reply

  9. Richard. Could you clarify what is the new(?) Facilities Agreement. Am afraid I am none the wiser with your response or isn’t it public information. Also re: Jazz’s query, my understanding is a LA’s insurance would pay out any liabilities/awards. Although as a rule, LAs like to settle this kind of cases out of court due to otherwise higher insurance premiums which cost ultimately falls on the local taxpayers through Council Tax! So public money is the ultimate source of funding it would appear. Unless we are told otherwise.

    Comment by Elaine | February 26, 2011 | Reply

  10. Thanks for that Richard.

    I hope those actions ensure that in future
    the RBC unions have the right level of
    facilities to represent those council workers who belong to a trade union.

    Greater transparency is certainly welcome.

    Comment by DAVE WARREN | February 26, 2011 | Reply


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