Cambridge City Council Budget Debate 2011


Thursday, February 24th, 2011. 4:54pm


Cambridge City Councillors in the Council Chamber During a Suspension in the 17th February 2011 Full Council Meeting.

Cambridge City Councillors in the Council Chamber During a Suspension in the 17th February 2011 Full Council Meeting.

I observed Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on Thursday the 17th of February. I have written a previous article about disruption at the meeting.

The main item on the agenda was the approval of the council’s budget for 2011-12 and its plans for forthcoming years. The Liberal Democrat ruling group put forward their proposed budget; and the Green and Labour groups proposed alternatives. Independent councillor John Hipkin gave a budget statement.

The Liberal Democrat budget was introduced by their leader Cllr Reid who told the council it could expect to receive an additional £738,000 “new homes bonus” following an announcement by central government that day. The headline position is well reported as the cutting of £2 million of spending and of 41 jobs. Cllr Reid explained the plan is to dip into the council’s reserves to mitigate central government’s front-loading of their cuts, but to pay that back in the near future. Out of total committee spending of ~£23m and ~£4m of the council’s overall spending will be funded from reserves. Cllr Reid passed over to some of her executive councillor colleagues allowing them to comment on their areas. Cllr Cantrill announced that a new tree works protocol and strategy would be developed in consultation with the public. Cllr Bick reported that changes to the crematorium would result in more choice for users and that his part of the council would be funding more street pastors.

There was no mention specifically of one of the Council’s biggest proposed savings which will arise from re-organising the way the Corn Exchange is run; though a consultation on the council’s Art’s strategy had closed only the week before.

Effectively the budget proposed the continuation of business as usual. It was a world away from the page after page of significant cuts to services which will adversely affect some of the poorest in society which I observed being voted through at the County Council the week before. While this is clearly generally a good thing; what we’re not seeing within Cambridge is any significant shake-up, re-organisation and streamlining which other councils under more pressure are undergoing. Hopefully Cambridge City Council will watch and learn from those which are able to make their operations leaner and more efficient and adapt at its own unstressed pace to what I hope will be an era of new lighter, cheaper local government under which the bins are still emptied and there’s still an annual bonfire on Midsummer Common.

Debate on the Lib Dem budget was brief. It was noted that the city’s car park income is greater than its central government grant. The Liberal Democrat’s focus on its architectural show-piece toilets was questioned, given that 60% of those using public toilets in the city use the Lion Yard toilets and they’re very cost effective to run; only: “6p per pee” Labour leader Lewis Herbert had calculated.

Mike Todd-Jones (Labour, Arbury) spoke about the 60% cuts to housing officers based out and about in the city. He explained passionately and clearly what these people did and why they were needed; and explained tenants with complex problems really want to meet someone they know face to face and the provision of the council’s customer service centre doesn’t offer the service they want.

Labour’s Cllr Newbold spoke about the litany of poor consultation exercises the council had run recently, particularly with respect to tree works. He pointed out the Liberal Democrats were not getting value for money from their consultations. Shockingly the Liberal Democtats jeered at him, suggesting they thought they’ve been doing a good job.

A Green Budget for Cambridge

The star of the show was Green Cllr Adam Pogonowski because he, along with his fellow Green Margaret Wright, had actually produced what amounts to a Green party alternative budget. In recent years the main Labour opposition have not produced such a detailed alternative, instead just proposing a series of relatively token amendments, on the grounds they didn’t have the time and officer support required to do anything more. With the Greens producing a substantive alternative, Labour would have been ridiculed if they hadn’t upped their game too, which they did.

The Green proposals were short termist and involve spending the council’s cash reserves; the only money raising measure was a proposed very small increase in car parking charges. The Greens perhaps surprisingly cut the new tree planting budget, and would have scrapped plans to install photo-voltaic cells on council buildings, describing the latter as a “token Green gesture”; something the Liberal democrats responding readily admitted it was, but defending the spending. Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor Smart said they wanted to be seen to be doing something and photo-voltaic cells were “very visible”.

Liberal Democrat Cllr Cantrill described the Green budget as “Red” because it involves spending [almost] all the reserves.

The Green Party proposed spending half a million pounds a year on the “Cambridge Green Deal”, that’s a huge chunk of the council’s discretionary spending; given how they proposed funding it one could say it is well in excess of what the council has to spend. A vote of the full council was held on the proposal, which Mayor Stuart refused to read out on the grounds it was “lots of text”. The proposal stated:

Cambridge’s Green Deal is an insulation and energy efficiency project for households in the City conducted and carried out by Cambridge City Council’s workforce, to reduce residents’ energy bills, and at the same time reduce Cambridge’s carbon footprint thus meeting Cambridge’s sustainable city objectives. The expertise of Cambridge’s scientific community, will be drawn on via an energy audit of households, to asses the areas of the City in most need of such upgrading so as to determine an equitable starting point for the project.

This is un-targeted state support and in Cambridge would result in many relatively rich home owners substantially benefiting from public money being spent on their properties.

The Green party would also have saved £20,000 a year by ceasing to determine planning applications at area committee meetings and returning them to the guildhall. Cllr Pogonowski told the council he didn’t feel competent to do planning, which prompted Liberal Democrats to remind him he was a reserve member of the planning committee.

My view is the city council does hold excessive cash reserves (it basically has a self-insurance fund for all sorts of things that could possibly go wrong); while I wouldn’t recklessly spend this as proposed by the Greens; I would like to see more of it invested within the city in projects which would promote economic growth and facilitate the city’s knowledge economy.

Cllr Smart defended the council’s approach saying that once her car had been crashed into and her boiler broke in the same week. (She’s got the right idea but the council are holding enough funds to deal with the roof collapsing, the washing machine breaking and a flood too!)

Labour’s Budget Proposals

The Labour group’s budget proposals involved:

  • Re-jigging the Liberal Democrat’s “Climate Change Fund”. This is actually a Liberal Democrat success story, they have a fund which they invest (and here invest really means invest) in energy saving upgrades to the council’s buildings which over a couple of years pay for themselves. The problem is they’ve found it hard to spend the money they’ve allocated, and appear distracted by what they appear to think is a vote winning name for this and therefore keep putting money in they can’t spend. Labour proposes to stop adding to the fund every year, to take some of the accumulated funds out, and to make the fund self-financing.
  • Labour proposed (and I the Liberal Democrats I think accepted, at least they sounded very keen on the idea) funding a series of touch screen kiosks to be placed around the city to give people the kind of advice they can get at the citizen’s advice bureau on subjects such as debt, benefits and employment. My view is this scheme sounds bonkers; what can a touch screen kiosk offer that an internet connected computer and Google cannot? I can’t imagine anyone with a substantive problem in these areas is going to gain any real insight or help from a few prods on a computer monitor. Labour wants some of these devices to be placed in supermarkets. Following my cynicism it has been suggested I go into the Cambridge Citizens Advice Bureau on Devonshire Road and look at the device they have there, which I will do.
  • Street cleaning; Labour proposes “targeted blitzes on dirtiest residential streets tackling one ward every month in rotation”; this is something they didn’t mention in debate this year particularly but focused on last year.
  • Gritting – Labour members pointed out the Liberal Democrats had failed to fulfil in any practical way their promise to make grit available to individuals and community groups and proposes budgeting for 2,000 25Kg grit bags to be distributed to the public.
  • Labour proposed scrapping the council magazine ‘Cambridge Matters’, which I understand is now under editorial control of the council leader Liberal Democrat Cllr Reid. Liberal Democrats were not joking when with straight faces they said they believed the city’s re-cycling rates depended on the publication.
  • The Labour budget proposals contain many elements showing they’re listening to residents who attend area committees. Once such item is a sum to repay stair lift charges to disabled tenants, currently people are paying excessive charges for the provision of, often old, equipment such as stair-lifts in their homes.
  • Labour would double the Environmental Improvements budgets which the Liberal Democrats are proposing to cut to just £50,000 per year per area committee. Labour gained Green Party support on this when it was put to the vote.
  • Labour would change the city’s “toilet strategy” and focus on the heavily used Lion Yard
  • Labour, as the Greens did, proposed the return of Area Committee planning to main Planning Committee

Independent Cllr Hipkin’s Budget Speech

Cllr Hipkin expressed effectively unreserved support for the Liberal Democrat budget; which prompted cries of “take him back” from the Labour members. (Cllr Hipkin was thrown out of the Liberal Democrats for suggesting that high density flats shouldn’t be built round the edges of the city). Cllr Hipkin joined Labour in calling for the council to make more from the property it owns. Cllr Hipkin praised the Liberal Democrats for getting the restaurant into the Guildhall, but said they could go further and that he’d like to see the whole building become a hotel.

Cllr Hipkin said the council was lucky to be in the position it is – not in debt – putting it in a good position to cope with cuts to central government funding.

Cllr Hipkin voted with the Liberal Democrats in favour of their proposed budget. The Green and Labour members abstained. (There had also been a number of votes on specific Green and Labour amendments, all of which were voted down by the Liberal Democrats).

Adjournment

Partly due to the disruption the council’s budget was debated and passed on the Thursday, but most of the motions to the meeting were deferred to Monday the 21st of February.

Background Information

12 comments/updates on “Cambridge City Council Budget Debate 2011

  1. Andrew Bower

    This is a shocking budget. Why is the city council spending £138 million, £3394 per Cambridge council tax-paying home? It has taken them long enough to agree to Conservative demands to accept the Conservative-proposed matched funding for a council tax freeze but really they should be aiming to ease the burden on hard-pressed Cambridge residents.

    I agree with some specific good points by opposition members but essentially a change of mindset is needed. There’s no doubt a zero-based budget would expose plenty of wasteful spending.

    At the time the Medium Term Strategy was discussed I was impressed that the Lib Dems had seemed to take on board the need to act responsibility but with all their posturing about the government it is sadly clear this is not the case.

  2. Martin

    I never understand the fuss about Cambridge Matters. It provides a useful service and, being full of advertising, presumably does not cost a huge amount in the scale of things. Even as a non-LibDem I don’t personally find it particularly biased.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    To be fair Martin didn’t suggest it makes money; just that it doesn’t cost that much.

    The LibDems argued it would cost more to send leaflets round about recycling than it does to produce the “magazine”. I find this odd as I get leaflets (the ones with the bin collection calendars on them) as well as the magazine.

  4. Edward

    To be fair, Cambridge Matters does have a direct impact on recycling rates – I’m the only person I know who didn’t just chuck it straight in the recycling bin when it came through the letterbox! What’s more, most of the information in Cambridge Matters was entirely useless to me, as I lived in a flat and therefore hadn’t been given a blue bin.

    I’d also note that whilst the Green alternative budget may have been successful, it wasn’t especially productive, as the Lib Dems always vote down suggestions from other parties, when they don’t amend them into motions glorifying the accomplisments of our exalted council leadership.

    I’d suggest the major reason Labour stopped producing full alternative budgets for a few years is that they were going to be voted down on principle by the ruling group without anything more than a cursory glance.

  5. Paul Harvey

    Edward wrote:
    “To be fair, Cambridge Matters does have a direct impact on recycling rates..”
    I have done a detailed analysis of Cambridge Matters Magazine. Having worked in the free mags industry,I know how they work: articles on what to put in your bin do not attract readers. Try and find a mag in WHS on the subject matter.

    As a part of my investigation into the mag and its impact on recycling, I asked to see recycling figures and publication dates to uncover if the two were correlated. The council replied in a letter, drafted by Ian Nimmo-Smith (a member of the Royal Statistical Society)that there was, “no evidence” that Cambridge Matters had any impact on recycling.

  6. Paul Harvey

    Richard Taylor wrote:
    “To be fair Martin didn’t suggest it makes money; just that it doesn’t cost that much.
    The LibDems argued it would cost more to send leaflets round about recycling than it does to produce the “magazine”. I find this odd as I get leaflets (the ones with the bin collection calendars on them) as well as the magazine.”

    Richard, if you want people to know what to put in their bins, put a sticker on the bin lid: information at the point of use. The bin collections only change in a six month window and those dates could be found on the web or email alerts sent to those interested. Or just put the bin out when everyone else does. I did an FOI request on calendar costs about two years ago, I am still waiting for a reply.

    The role of CM was supposed to reduce leafleting. Leafleting on what? I cannot recall ever receiving a leaflet from the council and have never been disadvantaged by not getting one.

    The fact is that CM was introduced in 2004, the year bin services were slashed. The county council introduced their mag later at a cost of £200,000 pa. I never felt disadvantaged by not having two mags then, but I am cross about having the bin service slashed.

  7. Paul Harvey

    Martin wrote:
    “I never understand the fuss about Cambridge Matters. It provides a useful service and, being full of advertising, presumably does not cost a huge amount in the scale of things. Even as a non-LibDem I don’t personally find it particularly biased.”

    Martin, the problem is CM was full of council advertising. When I asked what it cost, Simon Payne (Environment Director) said 12p per copy. I knew it was nonsense. He also said that this was under the 20p per copy national average. After months of investigation and analysis the true figure I found to be 20p per copy (66% higher) they had missed out £28,000 of costs.

    The chamber and a committee was materially misled by the 12p figure. A letter from the CEO followed and she emailed all the councillors confirming the 20p per copy cost. Never trust what the council tells you. The real cost with staff is £40,000 pa.

  8. Paul Harvey

    “…defending the spending. Liberal Democrat Executive Councillor Smart said they wanted to be seen to be doing something and photo-voltaic cells were “very visible”.

    I read in Cambridge First newspaper that the cost of these solar panels will be £430,000 (four hundred and thirty thousand). Anyone know if this is true?

  9. Paul Harvey

    RT wrote: “Hopefully Cambridge City Council will watch and learn from those which are able to make their operations leaner and more efficient…”

    Richard, we will see when the council publishes its organisation chart. Then we can compare it with other council’s structures, taxes and services. Perhaps they will also publish an organisation chart from 1997 to see how job functions and staffing have changed under the influence of Labour.

  10. Paul Harvey

    RT wrote: “Labour proposed scrapping the council magazine ‘Cambridge Matters’, which I understand is now under editorial control of the council leader Liberal Democrat Cllr Reid. Liberal Democrats were not joking when with straight faces they said they believed the city’s re-cycling rates depended on the publication.”

    I wrote: ” I asked to see recycling figures and publication dates to uncover if the two were correlated. The council replied in a letter, drafted by Ian Nimmo-Smith (a member of the Royal Statistical Society)that there was, “no evidence” that Cambridge Matters had any impact on recycling.”

    I have asked Sian Reid to confirm that what is reported here (by RT) is incorrect and that I was not misled by Ian Nimmo-Smith, the former leader of Cambridge City Council.

    I will let you know what she says.

  11. Paul Harvey

    Re: Post 11.

    I had a reply today from Sian Reid. I will quote in full:
    “Thank you for your interest in this issue.
    I am of the view that Cambridge Matters continues to contribute to public awareness and understanding of recycling services and policies in Cambridge.
    Cambridge Matters has been carrying messages about recycling to all households in Cambridge throughout the period between 2004 and 2010, which has seen an increase in the recycling rate from 29.5% to 44%.
    Cambridge Matters has been one of a range of ways in which the council has informed residents about services, and is viewed by the waste team as a useful tool both for reminding existing residents and for informing newcomers to the city about the range of recycling services and facilities available and any changes or improvements we make to them.
    Sian”

    You will notice that the fundamental issue is not addressed, her claim that Cambridge Matters helps recycling. Below is my full response.

    “Ms Reid

    Your view and that of the waste team is not what matters, the facts do. The council says there is no evidence that CM has improved recycling. Readership surveys indicate that the magazine is poorly received.
    You are associating the increase in recycling with publication of the magazine when there is no ‘evidence’ that the two are correlated. This flies in the face of council evidence. Further, the figures you quote are misleading. Recycling (cans, bottles, paper etc.) has not increased at the rate you quote. In 2004 the rate was 14 % and this has risen linearly to 18 % in 2008. These figures were supplied by the council. The figures you quote include compost matter and the rate for this rose from 10% in 2004 to 18 % in 2008. The figures you are quoting come from the discredited blog site for CM which has now been removed because no one was using it: not even you.
    Your comment to the chamber regarding the effectiveness of CM has no basis in fact. There is no evidence for it. Wlll you be making a clarifying statement at the next council meeting, or do I need to come along and present the facts.”

    Sian Reid knew 18 months ago that the figure regarding recycling were bogus, yet she continues to quote them to me and to the council in an attempt to puff up the council’s record on recycling.

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