Budget shadow boxing

The end of January saw councillors pile into a full council meeting at Hove Town Hall. It was the final opportunity for full council motions and petitions before the budget council meeting on 23rd February.

We’ve seen yet more rhetoric on the budget from all sides. The huge contradictions in the positions the opposition are taking have been particularly notable. In the same meeting Greens were accused of being ideological and making U-turns – which is somewhat contradictory! Either we’re making choices out of belief, regardless of context, or we’re changing our minds in response to feedback but it can’t be both.

Similarly we’ve seen both Tories and Labour oppose a wide range of our revenue raising ideas: fees & charges, changes to parking tariffs and council tax plans. Yet they’ve also opposed many of our ideas for saving money. The result would be a hugely imbalanced budget. We’ve yet to see any suggestions on how they would fund their ideas and make the budget balance.

Meanwhile the number of councils following our lead on rejecting the tax freeze is up to 27. These include some huge councils like Surrey and Cambridgeshire Counties and include Labour and Conservative led authorities. As the list has grown Tory ministers have grown more frantic. They’ve behaved like sulky children who haven’t got their way: Huffing, puffing and whining. The level of rhetoric has been extraordinary, but in the end they have revealed their hand. Two Tory local government ministers, Bob Neil and Eric Pickles, have both now publicly admitted that the tax freeze will see reduced funding for councils and will fundamentally lower their tax base. In other words it’s another cut. This is what Bob Neill wrote in a letter to councillors and MPs:

I appreciate that savings this and next year will have to be made to help achieve this [the tax freeze] – but this is also for councils to reform, restructure and innovate, and lower your spending base permanently.

This is the same old Tory policy, reduce government by hook or by crook. So no real surprises there, though dressing it as a tax freeze is a nasty bit of spin. What I find extraordinary is how the Brighton & Hove Labour party continue to support this Tory policy. Again and again they back Tories locally and nationally by supporting this freeze which will mean £5.4m less over two years to protect council jobs and services in our city. The branch secretaries of the the local GMB, Unison and NUT unions support the Green tax plan, but Labour aren’t listening. For them to protest the cuts yet actually support one of the most cynical Tory slashes is extraordinary.

Last year, in opposition, Green councillors published an alternative budget to further the council budget debate and explain our position. This year both Labour and Tories say they couldn’t do such a thing and so they continue to make nothing but un-costed claims. It’s a shame they haven’t felt able to participate more meaningfully in the council budget dialogue. We will persist with a more open budget process and I hope in coming years opposition parties will take a greater role in building informed debate.

For this year, the list of tax freeze rebel councils keeps growing, and we’ll keep talking with residents as the budget council meeting approaches.

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