On Tuesday the 15th of February 2011 I observed the full meeting of Cambridgeshire County Council at which the council’s budget was debated.
The ruling Conservative group proposed a budget involving cuts to the council’s spending totalling £160m over the next five years. The reasoning for this was they wanted to produce a balanced budget (ie. not borrow) and there has been reduction in the council’s central government grant. An exacerbating factor is that the central government grant has been cut over a period during which the county’s population is expected to increase so the council is getting less money but anticipating demand on its services will increase.
Unsurprisingly given the scale of the cuts the meeting papers comprised page after page of services to be cut, or “reduced”. Very few items were debated in any depth; though the meeting was held following a series of scrutiny meetings at which plans for each area of the council’s operations had presumably been debated in more detail.
The council leader, Jill Tuck, read out a prepared speech introducing her group’s budget, this was followed by a prepared response from the opposition Liberal Democrats. The meeting then moved on to debate the Liberal Democrat’s proposed alternative budget. This was the main substance of the meeting but the Lib Dem proposals were not circulated as part of the meeting papers and have not as far as I can tell been published either by the council or by the Liberal Democrats themselves.
In summary, based on the debate, their alternative proposals appear to involve raising council tax to reduce the level of the cuts needed and in particular to spend more money on buses, libraries, young people and social care. It is impossible to comment effectively without access to the details of their alternative. As the document as been produced with the help of council officers, and reportedly elements of it at least have bee debated by scrutiny committees it ought be accessible to the public.
I find it inconsistent that at the County Council the Lib Dems are calling for a council tax rise; whereas in the City Council they are proud of their council tax freeze. Overall the Lib Dem policy for Cambridge residents is clearly a council tax increase, even if they do not want the City Council component to rise.
Following the debate on the Liberal Democrat amendment, and a vote which saw it dismissed, many Conservatives called for the council to go straight to a vote on their proposed budget and not debate it all. This prompted protests from opposition councillors saying asking “where’s the democracy” (something hecklers from the public gallery had been asking throughout). The meeting’s chair ruled that to curtail debate in this way would be inappropriate and a short discussion of the proposals did occur.
A vote was then held on the Conservative budget; which was passed with thirty-six for and fifteen against. Ex. Liberal Democrat Cllr Harrison and UKIP’s Cllr Reeve Labour Cllrs Sadiq and along with Green Cllr Sedgwick-Jell voted with the Liberal Democrats against the budget. Independent Lister Wilson (Bourn) voted with the Conservatives. The Conservative chair and vice chair abstained. There are sixty-nine councillors in total. Fourteen were absent for this key vote.
The meeting was suspended on a number of occasions following disruption in the public gallery so progress was very slow. Although a number of protestors were removed heckling continued throughout the meeting. Earlier in the morning the council buildings had been blockaded by protestors and when I arrived the doors were locked. The video above shows what the protestors were doing.
The Conservative’s budget involves phasing out bus subsidies completely; eventually saving £0.8m per year. After the budget was passed Liberal Democrats tried to obtain an assurance from Conservative Cabinet member Cllr McGuire that the council would ensure children who relied on subsidised buses would still be able to get to school. The council has budgeted £60K per year to “recognise the impact on education transport”. While Cllr McGuire’s response sounded good, he said the council would help those it has a responsibility to help, in fact it is rather weak as many of those currently using subsidised bus routes to get to school may not be eligible for assistance with their travel from the County Council.
Conservative Cllr Shuter explained his group’s view saying, in summary, that the some of the subsidised services are so useless at the moment there’s not much point keeping them going. He suggested that once the council had cut all the subsidies; some might be re-instated, he said “we’ll see where we’ve got to step in; there is money for us to step in”, though the budget he was speaking in support and voted for contained a 100% cut in the bus subsidies.
Two specific bus routes were mentioned. One, the 114 service from Cambridge City Centre to Addenbrooke’s via Mowbray Road, Queen Edith’s was raised by a public petitioner and by Labour Cllr Sadiq. The other was the free Cambridge city centre circular bus; Cllr Whitebread argued this was a special case and ought be saved, because of the valuable service it provides, the fact it was introduced to enable those with difficulty walking to access the city centre following pedestrianisation, and the fact that a Traffic Regulation Order requires the bus to be free. (Only a free bus is allowed to drive out of the pedestrianised area onto King’s Parade). Oddly Cllr Whitebread claimed this bus could be a “goer” commercially if it wasn’t for the TRO, though she appeared to be arguing for the subsidy to be kept rather than the TRO to be relaxed to allow a commercial operator.
Would Election Have Been Won With Manifesto of Cuts?
Conservative Councillor Shona Johnstone came up with one of the most memorable quotes from the meeting when she said:
I don’t think any of us went to the electorate in 2009 with a manifesto which said we’d support cuts in bus services, we’d support reduced library provision, we’d support reductions in the provision of young people’s services and we’d support reductions in adult social care. I don’t think we would have been elected on that basis.
Her statement chimed with the calls of the protestors who were claiming the councillors had no democratic mandate to implement the cuts they were proposing. What Cllr Johnstone didn’t say was if she thought she’d get re-elected now given what she and her Conservative colleagues running the County Council are proposing; if she has doubts over that then perhaps she should, as the protestors were calling for, resign and put it to the test. (Full Speech).
Meeting Highlights – Based on my Live Tweets
When I arrived at about 0930 there was a small protest outside. Earlier it had reportedly blockaded the site. The doors to the council building were locked, but when I attempted to get in I was allowed in as I had been given permission to film the meeting and in connection with that I was invited to meet the council’s head of communications before hand, and to join the meeting’s chair for coffee.
While my entry was quite straight-forward one councillor, Cllr Melton reportedly fell through the doors when they were unlocked for him to enter (perhaps due to the pressure of the crowd outside). When I was in the chamber arranging where I would be allowed to film from Cllr Melton entered and joked that he was fine and he had just bounced.
I was free to place my camera where I liked at the back of the chamber, and given access to a table, chair, power and internet. There were no restrictions on my filming in the chamber; or of the public gallery from the chamber. (Other than I had agreed to stay at the back and obviously could not disrupt the meeting). This is a huge contrast from Cambridge City Council which has a highly restrictive filming protocol which makes effective filming of meetings almost impossible.
I was then taken to have coffee with the chair, vice chair, a couple of other councillors and the Humanist speaker who was due to speak and offer some “reflections” in lieu of the prayer which usually kicks off the meetings. When I tweeted to note the Humanist’s presence, Cambridge’s MP Julian Huppert responded saying:
RT @RTaylorUK No prayer today at @CambsCC Humanist reflections instead <- something I managed to get agreed when on @CambsCC 1 in 4 yrs only
During coffee I noted that the professional media setting up in the gallery would be ejected before the start of the meeting as they didn’t have permission; I suggested the council could have a more open policy. Conservative councillors dismissed this idea on the grounds it would require a change to the constitution and there were more important things to focus on.
While we sat drinking coffee, and eating posh biscuits in the rather grand chairman’s office (wooden chairs with posh leather upholstery, highly polished wooden table etc.) Cllr Phil Read commented arrogantly and dismissively on the protesters outside saying:
“They’re young people, students, they don’t know what’s going on”
Following the humanist reflections, tributes to councillors who had died recently, and formal notices including alerting councillors to the fact I was filming the meeting, things got underway with a series of public questions.
- The first public question was from Cambridge City Councillor, Sarah Brown. She asked: “What steps have been taken to avoid an adverse impact of the cuts on LGBT and other minorities?”. The response waffled about the council’s internal staff policies; when Cllr Brown asked a follow-up making clear she was interested in the wider public, the cabinet member responding ignored this and appeared to continue to read the remainder of his pre-prepared response.
- The next question was from member of the public Dr Nigel Preston who asked about lessons learnt from the private sector; and asked if things like reducing salaries or working fewer days per week had been considered as alternatives to redundancies. The council leader Jill Tuck responded blandly to say all options have been, and still are being, considered.
- A Mr Wherrell spoke against the proposed cuts to bus subsidies; he said public consultation had put them very high (3rd) on the list of things the council ought seek to protect. In response Cllr McGuire said consultation had showed the public were “willing to accept the removal of 50 routes”.
- The next public question, from Kate Grillet – a “cycling Cambridge citizen”, was on the poor quality of pot hole repairs. In response Cllr McGuire promised repairs to Sidney Street in Cambridge next month
- Next up were those who had petitioned the council; only three out of five petitions submitted were accompanied by public speakers, no attention was specifically drawn to the other two at the meeting. Despite having more people behind them the speakers on the petitions appeared to get a poorer deal than the public questioners; they didn’t get a response, and had no opportunity to follow up and ask a supplementary question. They just got to make a short speech.
- There were two petitions about cuts to bus routes, one from Tony Carter on rural routes, and another on the 114 route in Cambridge.
- The first serious disruption from the public gallery began during the petition on the 114 bus route; one person was ejected. The meeting was suspended.
- Council leader Jill Tuck tried to kick off the main business. However she said she was “pleased” to introduce her budget which wound up the protestors in the public gallery. They continued to heckle and the meeting was suspended again. When the meeting re-conviened Cllr Tuck read out her speech despite continued heckles.
- The Liberal Democrat leader was also heckled. The chair antagonised the protestors by saying: “Listen and you might learn something about local government budgeting”. The Lib Dem speech was silly and partisan, with their leader Cllr Fiona Whelan saying things like the Conservatives want to see youngsters reoffending.
- Interestingly the Liberal Democrats were scathing of the idea of the Big Society; they said it would be divisive. They realised that they got applause from the public gallery when they said that many people work so hard they don’t have time to volunteer so repeated this point at every opportunity.
- Labour’s Cllr Tariq Sadiq said the Liberal Democrats in Government are holding the hatchet along with the Conservatives; he said there was only one way he could stop the budget – by using the fact he has an unlimited time to speak – prompting suggestions from protestors in the gallery he should find a novel to read out. Cllr Sadiq continued with the silly partisan nonsense saying: “HMS Pickles has got us in the gunsights”.
- After the three speeches from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Labour parties, councillors decided to stop for lunch. Seafood quiche, stilton stuffed field mushrooms and wine were on the menu.
- On re-starting councillors debated each area; Conservative Cllr Johnstone said more members of the public should have attended scrutiny committees to learn about the details of cuts to childrens’ services. (I think this is bonkers; the council can’t blame the public for being uninformed if their best suggestion on finding out about proposals is to attend scrutiny meetings in person!).
- Conservative Cllr Renyolds said the public understand the need for cuts; and claimed back office savings could be made to protect the front line. (A statement rather disconnected from the facts of the budget he was speaking in favour of and then voted for)
- The Liberal Democrats complained about elements of the presentation of the proposals; saying officers were clearly confused by terms like “efficiency savings” which they were being asked to use.
- The meeting was again disrupted and suspended
- Cllr Whitebread asked if Climate Change was being dropped as a strategic objective. Conservatives replied it was 29th on the public list of priorities obtained during their consultation; but that consideration was given to energy / carbon efficiency in all the council does.
- Newly independent, (ex. Lib Dem), Cllr Harrison cheekily tried to promote her own transport policy (borrow more money, generate even more debt, and spend money we don’t have on transport) but was reigned in by the chair.
- LibDem Cllr Kindersley asked for the council to “butt out” of services local people take on. eg. Library access points / buses. (He was one Lib Dem who does believe in the “Big Society” and thinks people are going to get together and run their own bus services – the Conservatives applauded; I added #bonkers to my tweet),
- Council leader Cllr Tuck suggested there might still be a council tax rise at some point.
- Liberal Democrat Cllr Downes said a handful of schools will get more funding for opting our of local authority control and this would lead to inequality.
- Green Cllr Sedgwick-Jell highlighted cuts in grants to schools to give newly qualified teachers time off; he said this would make Cambridgeshire even more unattractive to teachers. He said the county was already either expensive in the south, or remote and isolated elsewhere.
- Green Cllr Sedgwick-Jell called for the schools music service not to be scrapped
- Conservative Cllr Harty responded, and defended, the planned cuts to schools and childrens’ services. He said a new Cambridgeshire County Council would emerge following the cuts (I don’t think he meant to suggest he and is fellow Conservatives would get voted out, but that’s one possible interpretation of his words). He also said he would have made the “restructuring” changes to children/young people’s services even without financial pressure. Conservatives said they had achieved a 4% increase in adoption despite a 15% drop nationally and had success reducing teenage pregnancy.
- Lib Dem Cllr Van-De Ven complained about a lack of detail on proposed library cuts
- Lib Dem Belinda Brooks-Gordon complained about the quality of the consultation asking: “How many 11 yr olds with literacy problems have been consulted on the cuts?”. Cllr Brooks-Gordon rarely speaks, but when she does it’s often on a feminist point. She asked about library staff cuts affecting women more than men. The incredulous cabinet member responsible pointed out this was’t in any-way sexist just a consequence of 90% of the library staff being women.
- It was interesting to see Lib Dem Cllr Bourke who represents a central Cambridge ward defending rural bus services; he wants to see his constituents pay more council tax, so they can continue to be subsidised.
- Lib De, Cllr Van De Ven pointed out the council currently doesn’t make it easy for volunteers citing the Addenbrooke’s access road whitelist – which the council refused to proactively put volunteer drivers on.
- Green Cllr Sedgwick-Jell said the deficit is not that bad and cuts not needed
- Lib Dem Cllr Wilkins also said the cuts were not needed
- Conservative Cllr Criswell explains how he’s making the council more efficient: introducing a “5:10 desk to staff ratio”. (The head of communications comes over to respond to my tweet publicising this to explain he just means a 1:2 ratio. I tweeted: ” Apparently a 5:10 desk:staff policy is a 1:2 desk:staff policy & Cllr Criswell needs to spend some time with a primary school maths class.” (One should express fractions/ratios in their most reduced form!)
- Cllr Bourke explains how he’d run the park and rides; Europe wide tendering to reduce costs.
- Bus routes needed for social justice, and to enable access to other services said Cllr Bourke.
- Conservative Cllr Hutton criticised Liberal Democrat plans for “creative accounting” and moving school debt around.
- Cllr Steve Tierney spoke against a council tax rise
- Conservative Cllr M Curtis said Lib Dems only want to cut the communications budget because it’ll make an easy headline. (Noting the interesting point the head of communications has a key co-ordinating role in serious case reviews into social care problems)
- Green Cllr Sedgwick-Jell says: “I will always tax high if I can get away with it”
- Conservative Cllr Criswell saying Cambridgeshire County Council can’t use Skype as its “insecure”
- The suggestion park and ride charges could be introduced in Cambridge on Saturday was made (I can’t see that in the papers though)
- Lib Dem Cllr Moss-Eccardt (representing Arbury in Cambridge while living near Ely) says his party’s proposed 3.5% council tax rise will “only” cost average household £34.00/year.
- Debate deteriorates into snipes over which councillors are more wealthy the Conservatives or the Lib Dems who’re mostly from the richer south of the county.
- Conservative Cllr Shona Johnstone says she&her colleagues running the council wouldn’t have got elected on a manifesto proposing what they’re doing
- UKIP ‘s Cllr Reeve suggests we’d have more money (and need less cuts) if we spend less on Europe.
- Asked how she’d lobbied Government to try and reduce the impact of the cuts on Cambridgeshire the leader of Cambridgeshire County Council reports she got a few words with David Cameron at an “event” before she was moved on.
The Conservative budget was passed unammended.
Green Cllr Sedgwick-Jell proposed a motion to get councillors to accept 5% cut in their allowances.
This motion was lost; interestingly ex. Lib Dem Cllr Harrison was the most passionate speaker in favour of councillors not cutting their allowances.
Most councillors kept quiet on the subject. A couple of Conservatives claimed this wasn’t the right way to alter the allowances and there was a due process.
Cllr Sedgwick-Jell’s motion was put to a vote, and it was voted down.
Only 6 councillors voted in favour of taking a 5% cut in their allowances.
I was the only individual filming within the council chamber during proceedings.