Budget report - Tories vote for a 6% Council tax rise!


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Budget Council Report
 

Tories Vote for 6% Council Tax Rise

The Conservative Group on Calderdale Council voted for a 5.99% rise in Council Tax for the coming year – despite spending five and a half hours of the meeting complaining about this was too high. Whatever the Tories put in their leaflets the fact is that, when it came to the vote on setting the Council Tax, every member of the Conservative Group who was at the meeting voted to increase Calderdale Council’s part of your Council Tax bill by nearly 6%.

Last year they voted for a 4.86% rise, despite spending the whole of that meeting complaining it was too large an increase. At that time you could only see this to be true by looking at the minutes of the meeting, this year you can do this and watch the recording of the meeting (https://calderdale.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/338536) to hear (but probably not see) each of them saying ‘for’ when voting on setting the Council Tax at a rate 6% higher than it is now.

          

Conservative Spending Plans Thrown Out

In the first significant vote of the evening, Liberal Democrat councillors voted against the Tory budget plans – as did Labour and Independent councillors.

If the Tories had had their way, many people on Council Tax benefits would have had to pay much more, £1/2 million would have been cut from Adult and Children’s social care, funding of Children’s Centres would have been cut by £690,000, the Housing Service would have been cut by £200,000 and council staff would have seen their pay and conditions significantly altered – and not in good ways. Not all of these points will find their way into Conservative leaflets but the fact that they would result in a Council Tax rise of ‘only’ 3.75% (including the 3% Adult Social Care Precept) will.

The Tories also planned to remove the extra funding for the environmental task force, which Liberal Democrat councillors pushed to get included in last year’s budget. Similarly, the cut to the Housing Service would have reduced the work done on affordable warmth, promoted by Liberal Democrats a few years ago.

The Conservative group’s proposals were not all bad news, especially if you are a management consultant, as they contained a sum of £200,000 to be paid to consultants to tell the council how to cut spending on social care.
As Liberal Democrat Group Leader Cllr James Baker said, these were not the proposals of a group serious about running the Council. James listed a number of Conservative-run authorities – that is, where Conservatives are actually having to make decisions about running a council, rather than just providing an irresponsible opposition – where Council Tax levels have been increased by the maximum permitted and still enormous cuts have had to be made.
 

Liberal Democrat Spending Plans Thrown Out

In a vote that was closer than it might have been, the Liberal Democrat Group’s budget proposals were also defeated: five votes for, 39 votes against, with four abstentions (the Mayor, who abstained on everything, the two Independent councillors and Conservative Councillor Andrew Tagg).

This Liberal Democrat budget proposals set out to:
  • Provide additional funding the winter gritting service – over and above the increase proposed by the Labour Cabinet;
  • Provide additional funding for highway maintenance;
  • Clean our streets with extra funding for Safer, Cleaner, Greener teams;
  • Create a budget for repairing or replacing play equipment in our parks;
  • Provide additional funding to support projects for young people;
  • Introduce a CCTV camera in West Vale to monitor traffic and tackle anti-social behaviour;
  • Fund two additional traffic calming schemes;
  • Continue the emergency living support grant;
  • Fund a Fire Safety Officer to implement lessons learnt from the Grenfell Tower fire, and
  • Protect the most vulnerable with extra funding to help the homeless. 
    The Liberal Democrat proposals also removed the Cabinet’s proposed cut to the Council’s enforcement team that could reduce the action taken against fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour.
To help to pay for these increases in spending the Liberal Democrat Group suggested two small-scale innovations – the setting up of a local lottery and using crowdfunding as sources of income to fund local community initiatives. Because of the difficult financial position Calderdale Council finds itself in, other reductions in spending were also included. The ones most likely to attract attention in the coming months are the reduction in library opening hours, which both Labour and the Conservatives opposed, and the introduction of unpaid leave for Council staff. This was also included in the Conservative proposals.

As Cllr Ashley Evans pointed out, the Liberal Democrat Group finds itself in the position of putting forward the “least worst cuts”.

It might be useful to some people to note that the Conservatives voted against:
  • CCTV for West Vale;
  • Increased funding for Youth Services (twice);
  • Traffic calming in Warley and Greetland & Stainland (twice);
  • Increased funding for play equipment in parks, and
  • Increased funding for highways maintenance.
 Labour also voted against these, but the traffic calming and Youth Service items were included in the budget they voted for.

Compromise Reached

Sometime after 11pm, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Independent councillors voted for the amended budget put forward around five hours earlier by the Leader of the Council. In a council where no political group has a majority, a compromise was inevitable and the amended budget was the result of discussions held over previous days. Discussions also took place between the Liberal Democrat and Conservative groups.

The Liberal Democrat Group supported this budget because it:
  • Reduced the saving required in Enforcement;
  • Included more money for the Safer, Cleaner, Greener Service, and
  • Included money for traffic calming measure in Greetland & Stainland and Warley 
    The final budget included the idea of establishing a Council-promoted lottery but did not, though, include money for CCTV cameras in West Vale, nor for improvements to play equipment.


Inconsistent Tories

Conservative councillors started the evening as the meant to go on – by asking for an adjournment so that they had time to look at the amended proposals being put forward by the Leader of the Council. Complaints about the lack of detail in the proposals continued for much of the evening. Cllr Marilyn Greenwood helpfully pointed out that detailed explanations for everything contained within the budget had been available for some time. That’s not what people wanted to hear, though.
The Tories complained about the lack of detail in the proposals of others, but they voted to cut Social Care spending by £500,000. We know there is no detail in this, as £200,000 was to be spent on consultants to come up with a plan. Sticking the word ‘transformation’ in a budget and banging on about ‘efficiencies’ are not the same as actually having some idea about what should happen.

They complained about prudential borrowing increasing the Council’s costs ‘for decades to come’ – but then proposed more of it;

They complained about the regressive nature of Council Tax – but then tried to make it much more regressive by imposing enormous increases on the poorest.

They claimed that their proposals made it clear that they planned to increase the Council Tax contribution rate of some benefit claimants to 30%, but no figure was given in the detailed sheets.

They complained about previous savings proposals being agreed, but not delivered. Their budget contained proposals that cannot be delivered without the agreement of others, notably the Boundary Commission.

They described the proposal to establish a council-promoted lottery as a ‘terrible idea’ and a ‘dangerous proposal’ that encourages gambling. The Conservatives, though, run their own lottery (https://lottery.conservatives.com/) and it is not unknown for Conservative-run councils to promote such schemes.

The Halifax Courier last week was full of Conservative councillors complaining about potholes and cuts in the highways maintenance budget. This week they voted against Liberal Democrat plans to increase this budget.

They complained about the inclusion of traffic calming measures for Greetland & Stainland and Warley being included in the budget, but they included plans to spend money in a number of places – all of which were coincidentally in Conservative-held wards. 

A Good Budget?

Although Liberal Democrat influence improved the Labour Cabinet’s proposals, it is still difficult to describe it as a good budget. There are too many cuts in it, and the Council Tax rise is higher than the Liberal Democrat group would have liked. This is due to the Conservative government continuing to cut the grant given to councils. In a few years this will disappear entirely. Councils up and down the country are struggling to balance their budgets, so it can’t just be a problem caused by the incompetence of Labour-run Calderdale Council, as the Tories suggested.

Government policy on Council Tax has also changed. A few years ago, councils were given money to freeze Council Tax. Now councils are being encouraged to increase Council Tax: the Adult Social Care precept has been introduced and the limit on Council Tax rises has been increased. Council Tax, which falls disproportionately on poorer people, is not a good way to address national problems such as social care for children and the elderly.


Quotes of the Evening
Not sure which is the winner – you can decide. Was it one of the Conservative councillors who noted that “we’ve heard a lot about the public sector tonight”? Not quite sure what he was expecting at a meeting at which a local authority was setting its budget. Or perhaps it was one of his colleagues who uttered words to the effect “I don’t know what’s going on in my ward”. Both of these statements have the advantage of being true, which can’t be said of everything that was said during the meeting.

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