Depressing Calderdale Council budget meeting approves massive cuts budget – without knowing where cuts will fall

LibDem Councillors last night voted with the Tory group to approve a 3 year Council budget that passes huge Coalition government cuts to local authority funding onto the people of Calderdale.

The new Council Budget is vague about massive cuts it commits to in 2017/18, which include £2.6m cuts to unspecified “discretionary services”, as well as £2.5m cuts to Adults Health and Social Care and Children’s and Young People’s Services, as a result of  “new ways of working”.

“New ways of working” is about turfing staff out of Council employment and getting them to set up as a social enterprise, contracted to deliver Council services on less money.

Discretionary services are those which the Council doesn’t have a statutory duty to provide, but which the public relies on in our day to day lives – such as libraries, winter road gritting and children’s centres.

Tory Council Leader Cllr Steven Baines admitted in his opening speech that the 2017/18 Budget included “major changes” but “no firm proposals – just rough headings for future consultation…on where cuts should happen.”

Labour Councillors criticised the ConDem’s ploy of postponing decisions about where to make the cuts until after the May elections.

Leader of the Labour Group Cllr Tim Swift said the lack of clarity about what’s ruled in and what’s ruled out of the £2.6m cuts to discretionary services was “indefensible,” and that:

“The three year budget leaves no area of Calderdale services safe.”

Central government has slashed its main grant to Calderdale Council, following four years of cuts

This year the Coalition government has slashed its main grant to Calderdale Council by nearly a third, on top of four years of cuts to Calderdale Council.

Lobbying Calderdale Councillors before the budget meeting, Green Calderdale Councillor candidate for Calder Ward Tessa Gordziejko said,

“We think it’s important for Calderdale Council to refuse to implement a budget which passes on central government cuts to the People of Calderdale. That’s what I’ll be doing as a Councillor if elected.

In the meantime, we need to let Councillors know they should say ‘enough is enough’ and tell the coalition government to restore the central government funding it has cut.”

Independent Councillor Colin Raistrick told the Greens that refusing to implement a cuts budget would be illegal.

Labour alternative budget – what the Council didn’t vote for

Cllr Tim Swift described the Labour amendment to the ConDem’s Cabinet budget proposals as:

“… a radical budget and a prudent one too.”

The Labour Group’s budget included proposals that CMBC should:

  • re-start building new social homes for rent, using prudential borrowing to raise the capital and repaying this from tenants’ rents
  • support people facing real financial hardship by funding local welfare support through extra revenue support grants
  • create a £7m capital investment fund through prudential borrowing, to pay for work on a central leisure facility, heritage buildings and re-roofing Halifax and Todmorden markets
  • invest in future flood prevention and drainage work

Tories rubbished the Labour alternative budget. Cllr Benton said it was “inherently flawed” and its reliance on borrowing would put the Council at risk – to which Cllr Barry Collins replied that the Council’s Chief Finance Officer had not said this of the Labour budget.

LibDem Cllr Janet Battye accused Labour of electioneering. She said she had hoped to support the Labour budget but there had been no Scrutiny on it, no public consultation or cross-party work on it, and LibDems really wanted cross-party consensus. (Labour shouts of “Oh shut up!”).

Ritual insults begun, the focus of the Budget debate shifted to:

  • Labour’s proposal for re-starting a programme of building social homes for rent
  • the role of public consultation in setting Council budgets
  • the state of the Council’s Highways department
  • proposed ConDem budget cuts to Adults Health and Social Care and Children’s and Young People’s Services, from “new ways of working”

Re-starting Council building programme for social homes for rent

Labour Cllr Jennie Lynn pointed out there are big problems resulting from the lack of social housing.

She said the Labour budget included setting aside £50K from revenue funding in order to pay for a salary to carry out a scoping survey to work out how the scheme for social housing building could go ahead.

She said Calderdale Council would partner with other local authorities like Bradford that have already gone down this road. The building programme would be funded by prudential borrowing, to be repaid out of tenants’ rents, as in 1950s/60s council housing.

Cllr Lynn said LibDem and Tory Councils have adopted this approach to social housing building, and it was possible under the general power of competence that has been granted to councils.

Cllr Lynn’s mention of Council housing sent Tory Cllr Andrew Tagg off on a bit of a rant, comparing Labour’s Council estates to something out of the Soviet Union where no one wanted to live.

Warming to his theme, he said former Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan had rubbished the idea that increasing public spending leads to increased economic growth, and the Calderdale Labour budget proposals were “a leap back to the 1970s.”

Cllr Swift said comparing the Labour party to the soviet union was offensive, like comparing the Tories to General Pinochet.

Cllr Battye said Calderdale people need more housing and there was a cross-party national consensus on the need to build more social housing.

Cllr Metcalfe said good quality affordable housing is a basic human right and we are living in a massive housing crisis. Social housing partners have had massive cuts to their grants from central government and we need other ways to fund social housing building.
He added that Council housing had introduced Parker Morris standards for space and light, and set up a blueprint for housing that’s gone out of the window.

Cllr Barry Collins said the housing crisis was the result of the failure of the market to deliver. The Labour proposal was not about going back to old-style council housing.

Cllr Steven Baines said that Council housing has to be properly funded and it hadn’t been in Calderdale Council, which had led to the handover to Pennine Housing 2000, and the Council’s council housing debt being cleared by central government.

He said that it takes 25 years of rent to cover the capital costs of building a social home, leaving out the interest and repairs etc, and it wasn’t clear in the Labour budget how the rents would repay the cost of borrowing to build the new houses.

Echoing Cllr Tagg, Cllr Baines said it was typical of Labour to tax more and spend more. They wanted to let the public pay for new social homes for rent, but said nothing about public consultation.

The role of public consultation in setting Council budgets

Labour Councillors described the public consultation on the ConDem Council budget as “farcical”, with only 4 members of the public attending the Halifax consultation and 8 at the Calder Ward forum where the Budget proposal was discussed.

They said that the real public consultation took place every year at the elections, and the right thing to do was to put forward clear proposals for the public to make their minds up about at election time.

LibDems and Tories disagreed with this view and preferred to postpone decisions about what services to cut until they consulted the public in the summer, after the May elections.

Labour said this made a mockery of the idea of public consultation.

The state of the highways department

The Labour budget criticised the Tory failure to spend Highways Department money, leaving a trail of broken streetlights that hadn’t been fixed and potholes everywhere. Cllr Barry Collins said,

“The Highways Department is out of control. We need a highways maintenance review and until that’s done, it’s better to use the underspend on something else.”

The Tories said that the underspend was £400K not £700k.

The vision thing

Several Labour Councillors said that their alternative Budget offered a bit of vision about how things could be different and better.  In contrast, said Labour Cllr Anne Collins,

“There is a real lack of hope, ambition and ideas for the future among the Tories. As for the LibDems – think what their constituents would lose if they don’t support the Labour Budget.”

But they didn’t.

LibDem energy saving amendment

Instead, LibDems successfully put forward their own two-part amendment to the Tory Budget.

The LibDem amendment sets strict energy saving targets for council buildings and uses money from cutting energy use to pay for investment in solar pv electricity generation on council buildings, and in LED lighting in Council buildings.

It also plans for £1.4m investment in home insulation across the borough, for rented as well as owner-occupied homes. This will:

  • improve the quality of housing stock,
  • increase the use of houses that people currently don’t want to rent
  • tackle fuel poverty
  • improve health and save NHS spending
  • allow increased spending in the local authority (on the assumption that people won’t take their savings on energy costs in extra warmth and comfort – which is what usually happens at least to to a considerable degree).

Correction 27 Feb 2015 corrected to identify Cllr Raistrick as Independent, not Conservative.

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