What an extraordinary night we had at Brighton Town Hall last night: Adjournments as the rowdy public gallery expressed their displeasure. Possibly a record number of ‘points of order’ being made by councillors as speeches got nasty, tetchy and overly personal. They mayor was always going to have a difficult time managing the meeting, and all things considered, he did reasonably well – though Greens wanted to see more public allowed in the gallery.
I won’t report the meeting blow by blow: You can watch it on the webcast, the extensive coverage on Brighton & Hove news (see related posts at the bottom of that link for more) and The Argus’ multimedia coverage.
In essence the Tories repeated the usual nonsense that the cuts were inevitable and they were all terribly responsible for implementing ‘savings’. They attacked Greens for being profligate and irresponsible with money. Yet it was the Green Alternative Budget which spent less money than the Tory budget, and put more aside into reserves, putting us in a better place for future years.
I tried to speak to our desire to reduce the number of high paid council officers in favour of protecting frontline services and increasing wages for the lowest paid workers. Our amendment to this affect had already been blocked from getting onto the agenda, but the mayor then tried to stop me even talking about the idea saying I couldn’t talk about job losses. Rather bizarre given the Tory budget was proposing to remove 250 jobs from the city!
It was excellent news that the joint Green and Labour amendments were passed through, saving some important services and eliminating the worst of the Tories budget gimmicks. These joint amendments (which I’m disappointed to see Labour claiming as ‘the Labour alternative budget‘) changed about £2.7m in the overall budget. Which, compared to the only £20,000 or so we changed last year through a last-minute Tory concession, is a big achievement. But in the context of the overall budget there were still about £23m of service reductions included.
This was a secretive budget process: papers presented late, officers restricted from talking to us about the detail we desperately needed and cabinet members not even attending some scrutiny meetings. Other councils take a much more open and cross-party approach to their budget setting.
Greens chose to vote down this Tory-cuts budget, and we had thought Labour would do so too — but they blinked at the last moment and abstained, letting the Tories push their budget through. Which is a terrible shame. We wanted to call another budget council in a week. We would spend the intervening time finding much more detail on what the proposals before us entailed. We would involved the unions, voluntary organisations and public in examining the books which we would have thrown open. Then we could have set a better, fairer budget.
Yes, it’s a better budget thanks to the joint Green & Labour amendments. It was appalling that Tories wanted to hand out a 1% tax cut (worth only 20p a week to the average tax payer – and nothing to those on benefits who don’t pay council tax) plus a 5% reduction in parking permits whilst slashing services for the young, elderly and vulnerable. How can they morally justify cutting provision for orphans (for example) whilst spending over £1 million on removing a cycle lane?
So some of that madness was averted. But with details on posts previously claimed as ‘vacant’ so deleted being revised to not vacant but still deleted, there was clearly much more we could work through if we had the time and information.
Labour’s last minute change of heart on this was bitterly disappointing, and it was plain on the face of many Labour councillors that this was not how they thought they would be voting. Tories jeered as their budget passed. They had repeatedly accused opposition parties of not understanding ‘value for money’, otherwise we wouldn’t be putting money back into services with our amendments. Putting money into a service doesn’t mean it has to spend every last penny – quite regularly departments underspend as demand fluctuates or they find more efficient ways of doing things. That is quite separate from just lopping great chunks off budgets to the detriment of services and their users.
The Tory cuts budget passed as Labour blinked, but the blows have been softened by the joint Green/Labour amendments passing. Greens stood firm in our opposition.