Cornwall Council – Battle of the Budget
Yesterday’s Council (click HERE for the Agenda) meeting was a mammoth session. It was also one of the most important meetings of this Council since its formation. The main agenda item was the emergency budget that proposed cuts of £170 million over the next four years. Cutting is something no-one likes to do, but the stark reality is that central government is cutting the grants it gives to Local Authorities.
We have repeatedly been told by various financial officers that these cuts are going to be bad and we must address them sooner rather than later. For me, I can understand that logic, especially if waiting will result in more cuts. Again Councillors were told that any delay could result in a further £5.6 million of cuts. I have no reason to doubt those senior professional officers when they say what they do. After all, we as a Council employ them because they are experts in their fields. I don’t think there is a Councillor at Cornwall Council who has the same qualifications, or experience as these senior officers have. So when they say something is bad, then I as a Councillor will listen.
One of the main issues that I do have is the timing of the budget. It has been discussed before the Government announces the actual figure of cuts in real money terms. So yesterday’s budget was on indications, or intentions of the likely cuts; not hard figures. These figures range from 10%-12.8% in first year cuts to the grants. I would have preferred to have waited until these figures were released before discussing this, but that did not happen and was beyond my control.
The budget debate opened with the political group leaders setting out their cases The Leader of the Council got 15 minutes, with the rest of the group leaders getting 10. This in itself took an hour and I have to say it was unnecessary and far too long winded for my liking. I felt that I had heard it many times before and nothing new was said. It was then over to the other Members of the Council to make their points. I stood up and said a few words along the lines of I don’t like to cut and would have preferred to wait. However, I would in principle support this process if I got the reassurance that if the grant cut was lower than expected, then that money is reassigned to those areas that had been cut.
The Liberal Democrats tabled a few amendments to the proposals which can be read HERE. I felt that some of these had merits I would and did support, others I felt had no merit. The amendments that I did support were 9 and 10. All these amendments were close contests and only lost by a few votes. Things got a little heated when I tired to press for a amendment to allow 0.15% (185K) of the reserves to be earmarked to allow more time for certain leisure facilities to be saved. The Chairman had to stand up twice (indicates all talking must stop) and one other Councillor was threatened with removal.
I also seconded Cllr Ferguson’s motion (page 3 of the amendments) to the removal of the ‘Cornwall Sports Village’ AKA Cornwall Stadium because I felt that this should not be in this budget and should be discussed at a later date by the full Council when all the facts were present. This motion was won and had cross party support. The other part of the motion by Cllr Ferguson, which I also seconded, was the reduction of the budget that Cornwall Council spends at the Royal Cornwall Show. This is around £46k, but does not include staffing costs. I wanted to see a reduction because it was hard to justify cutting services when we would still spend a lot on this. I am sad to say this was overwhelmingly defeated. I felt Councillors were more concerned with this, than trying to save various leisure facilities.
Futhermore, I supported one of MK’s amendments (page 5). This I believed was just and right, but I could not support their other amendment because this would have included severance payments for the higher levels.
After four and a half hours of debate a vote was taken on the budget that included all the other amendments that had been carried. This was going to be close as out of a maximum of 123 Councillors only 99 remained. The vote was taken and the budget was carried by 60 votes for, 39 against with one abstention (the Chairman). I voted in favour, because I felt listening to all the debate and taking part in all of the scrutiny meetings that I realised the real danger the Council was in. I had pressed and won on my two redline areas and felt I had achieved what I had set out to do at the beginning of this process. As I said before, if the cuts are lower then I will expect those cuts to be reassigned. If they are not, then there will be hell to pay when we set another budget in January.