Tonight was the night for the full council to decide the budget for the next year. The opposition parties could, if they had worked together, have amended the Tory budget to remove the harshest cuts and reallocate spending. I will copy the detail of the Green amendments below so you can get a flavour of the cuts we wanted to reverse, and the ideas we proposed. I’m disappointed that other than £10k for piloting digital tools for older people with Age Concern, none of our proposals went through. One of the LibDem amendments to go through, providing energy meters on loan in libraries, is something I first suggested over two years ago but didn’t think to include in this budget, so I’m glad they picked it up and go it in.
But the whole process is what I want to reflect on here. Firstly, and I welcome this, the Tory administration published a first draft budget much earlier in the year. This was very helpful and for the first time the scrutiny committees got to meet and discuss the budget. As a result of this and other feedback a number of proposed cuts, such as to the History Centre and respite care, were rolled back way ahead of the budget meeting.
Meanwhile the Green group of councillors were working up a range of amendments with our own ideas and priorities. Fully aware of the potential of joint opposition working, we for months were approaching the opposition parties trying to initiate a collaborative approach. They kept delaying meetings or asking us to wait for their amendments to be ready. Two weeks ago we put forward a suggested set of joint amendments. Labour refused saying they would continue with how they have worked on previous budgets: That is submitting a set of their own amendments without reference to what the other groups were doing.
The problem is, you can’t spend the same money twice. So without jointly figuring out what our various priorities were and how we could fit them together into a balanced budget, it was going to be difficult to make successful amendments to the Tory budget work.
The Council’s Chief Executive also called a number of Leaders’ Group meetings (where the leaders of the political groups on the council get together with lead officers) ahead of the budget meeting to try and broker some deals. Other than offering, at the last minute today, less than £80k to support a few minor opposition amendments, no deals were forthcoming.
Whilst the amendments Labour submitted weren’t as good (in our Green view) as our own, they still undid many of the worst Tory cuts. So Greens were willing to support them in the hope of getting a less bad budget for the city. Labour refused to support our amendments, even ones similar to their own. The two Liberal Democrat councillors sat on their hands on votes for many opposition amendments, even when we supported Labour amendments. With the Independent councillor supporting the Tories, without LibDem votes the Labour amendments fell.
So the only opportunities to prevent the cuts passed by. The meeting ended with the budget passing after Greens were the only party to vote against the Tory budget full of cuts and frankly bizarre capital spending priorities. As councillors buzzed around at the end, it became clear to us that Labour had asked the LibDems not to support their own amendments! This ensured their amendments would not be carried. Deals clearly had been done with the Tories to support the status quo and stop the Greens from getting too much influence. So to be absolutely clear about this — while Labour pretended to amend the budget, from what I overheard they had already made sure their amendments could not succeed by getting LibDems to not vote in favour of them. Alternatively the Tories did deals with both of them directly. How else could ‘progressive’ parties fail to stop cuts to critical budgets such as social care?
The cynical political plotting by the parties has left the city with a worse budget than it needed be. It’s sorely disappointing. Meanwhile the debate suffered from mostly being based on fighting battles from the eighties or silly point scoring about national outcomes after the general election. The two amendments I’d been championing around food and garden waste were opposed for the most spurious reasons. Labour claimed home composting would suffer with a green waste collection, yet clearly many households are never going to be able to home compost plus much garden waste isn’t compostable without being chipped. On food waste the irrelevant spectre of fortnightly collections (which Tories are terrified of) reared its head when in the city centre communal bins are emptied almost daily!
The current political culture in our city council is excessively plotting, bitter, cynical and does not serve the best interests of this city’s residents. I wish I could think of suggestions on how to improve the chances of joint working. But we Greens spent weeks and weeks trying to get engagement from other parties without any clear interest from the others. If they’re going to do deals for their own personal benefit (perhaps Official Opposition status again next year which brings with it large additional allowances for several councillors) ahead of what’s best for the city, I really don’t know what to suggest.
I’d love to offer an alternative analysis but I feel we saw the worst of the councillors tonight. And once again, divisions on the left of the political spectrum let the right win through.
Green Group Amendments
(I don’t have a digital copy yet, the full details will be published on the council website soon enough, so I’ll just type out the rough basics of our proposals)
- £10k to fund 50% of an Age Concern worker to develop a WiredAge pilot project involving older people with online tools.
- £150k to fund up to 900 families in lower council tax bands getting home insulation
- £25k for an additional noise patrol shift per week
- £180k to fund enhanced sustainability measures at each of the 9 secondary schools in the city (£20k each)
- £69k to temporarily increase the discretionary grants budget this year
- A cost neutral green waste collection service paid for by participating residents. Estimated cost for residents of £90 per annum based on 4,000 participants.
- £100k to re-start Valley Gardens transport project – feasibility & design work.
- £150k one-off transfer to the winter maintenance reserve.
- Reverse £126k cut to Youth Offending Service.
- Reverse £137k of £332k cuts to home to school transport budget.
- Reverse £137k of £300k cuts to adult social care services commissioning cuts.
- Remove £100k annual increase in winter maintenance budget.
- Reduce the budget for mowing grass verges by £100k.
- £40k to fund a detailed study in to running a viable food waste collection trial.
- £20k to fund a travel plan for Varndean, Stringer & Balfour campus.
- £490k to bring around 15 empty council properties into use.
- Reduce the seafront maintenance budget by £50k.
- Remove £500k for the new transport model (which has no business case to support the £1m cost over its 5 year life).
- Change resident parking permits to base the cost on CO2 emissions of the vehicle, raising £240k in the first year and £490k in later years.
- £32k to improve downland management through collection & composting on priority downland areas and bringing forward sheep grazing.
- Reverse £208k of the £410k cut in Adult Social Care relating to personal budgets.