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Josh Fenton-GlynnCouncil budget report

from Josh Fenton-Glynn, who represents Hebden Bridge on Calderdale Council

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

It took five and a half hours of arguing, but Calderdale Council managed to pass a budget on Monday night. I'm going to outline some of the main points in the budget we have passed and some of the differences between the three budgets proposed by Labour, The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Budget Council

Budget Council is one of the more difficult meetings of the year. It is often a fractious meeting with a lot of political point scoring between the parties, and this one was no different. The structure of Budget Council is that the main party (in Calderdale’s case Labour) propose their budget and the opposition parties (the Conservatives and the Liberals) have the opportunity to propose alternative budgets tabled as amendments. The opposition amendments are debated and voted on first then the Labour budget, including any added amendments, is discussed.

A Background of Cuts

This budget is being set against the background of unprecedented national public sector cuts. These have hit hardest on local government. Calderdale Council has seen a cut of £70 million a year in central government funding since 2010 and across the country, even Conservative councils from Buckinghamshire to Surrey have condemned the extreme level of these cuts. The Conservative councillor who chairs the Local Government Association said, "if our public services are to survive the next five years, local councils need fairer funding and the freedom to pay for them." However, in Calderdale the Conservative group have at no point challenged them, blaming every cost saving they don't like on the council cabinet. Indeed, they even welcomed Theresa May - who is leading these cuts from a national level - to Calderdale last week as part of their local government campaign.

A Background of Cuts

The first budget to be debated was the one from the Conservative group. This budget had been tabled a week and a half ago, but they refused to let council officers distribute it to other parties and the public until only five days before the vote, presumably to make transparency and scrutiny more challenging.

It's very long so I can't go through all of it here but here are some headline features of the Conservative Group budget.

The Conservatives group proposals sought to balance the budget on the back of some of the poorest in our society, whilst raising council tax slightly less than the Labour and Liberal parties would have. To do this, they would have taken money from some of the poorest in Calderdale. Their budget proposals included:

  1. Taking £700,000 away from children's centres. To date, Calderdale Council has protected our children's centres and Sure Start because we recognise how important it is to families.
  2. Cutting social care by £500,000.
  3. Cutting council tax allowance, which would mean those on the lowest incomes would see an effective council tax rise of 58%.
  4. Cutting the terms and conditions of council staff, including taking away their first three days sick pay, making them all take two days unpaid holiday a year, taking away annual cost of living pay rises for higher grades and taking away pay increments for all staff. Public sector workers have already endured pension cuts and a pay freeze over the past few years, and protecting our staff’s conditions is vital to the council continuing to employ good people.

I spoke against the Conservative group budget and called it a ‘bully boy budget’, because the local Conservatives refuse to stand up to the strong and criticise Theresa May for her level of cuts to Calderdale, yet are happy to kick some of our poorest citizens. I focused on the benefit cuts, the attacks on our staff and the social care cuts. It is unconscionable to cut half a million a year from the vital services that ensure our parents’ and grandparents’ wellbeing. It is wrong to cut half a million that helps people stay in their own home and live with dignity. It is a false economy to cut social care that helps care for people in the community and keep them out of hospital. Ultimately this move would leave more people being forced to use the NHS and cost more in the long run.

The Conservative speeches in favour of their budget were often theatrical in tone, one of them blaming Harold Wilson for the level of cuts they were imposing. Among the mock outrage and rather selective economic history of the Conservatives one thing was clear: their budget didn't seek to represent all of Calderdale. Instead they focused on narrow short term ideas for headlines, and had no serious plans for the future of our borough.

In the end, the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Independent groups all voted against this budget and it therefore fell.

The Liberal Democrat Budget

The Liberal Democrat Budget was up next. It is impressive that as a group of five councillors they were able to produce their own budget and deliver it in advance to allow it to be properly scrutinised by opposing parties. The Liberal budget included some good ideas including more money for enforcement as part of the Safer Cleaner Greener budgets, and some of these amendments made it into the final Labour budget that was passed. They had also proposed individual items for their councillors’ wards. There were things in the Liberal Democrat budget that I could not support though, including a pay cut to council employees - like the Conservatives, they would force staff to take two days a year unpaid leave, and a cut to library services which would have seen library opening hours throughout Calderdale reduced by a third. This budget also didn’t pass when it came to the vote, although some of the individual amendments did.

The Labour Budget

After negotiation with the other parties I believe we proposed an improved Labour budget on Monday night. Our budget included:

  1. £100,000 extra to help tackle homelessness
  2. We will continue to protect our children's centres and libraries
  3. We earmarked £10 million of capital investment for Calderdale's smaller towns outside Halifax. This was an improvement on a Conservative proposal which had similar funding but specifically ruled out spending any of that money in Hebden Bridge and Todmorden
  4. We continue to pay council employees the real Living Wage, having been the first West Yorkshire local authority to do so
  5. We are continuing to seek to secure investment into major projects including £60 million worth of infrastructure in the Brighouse and Rastrick area, funding for the Clifton Enterprise zone set to bring in thousands of new jobs, improvements to the A641 and sorting out the roundabouts at either end of the Ludenscheid link in Brighouse
  6. Having successfully secured money for a new train station at Elland, we will keep working with the town board to improve the town centre
  7. Maintaining investment in major projects like the improvements to Todmorden Town hall.
  8. We also listened to residents’ concerns and decided not to go ahead with the recently proposed changes to local Tourist Information Centres.
  9. To be able to maintain vital services and make these longer term improvements to our area, our budget proposed a 2.9% council tax rise, plus 3% on the social care precept to help counter the national government cuts and keep Calderdale working against this backdrop.

These are just some headlines but give you an idea of the programme we are trying to put in place to secure Calderdale in the long term, make improvements to infrastructure and help make life better for all those who live here.

After negotiations, with the Lib Dems we were able to pass our budget with support from them and the independent councillors too. In the current climate, there are things in all council budgets we would rather not have to do, but until we have a government prepared to take long term decisions, and not cut local government funding and social care, we have to do the best we can. I believe the attack on local government as much as anything else shows why we need a Labour government to get the best for Calderdale.