Thursday, 24 February 2011

Round-up: RBC's £125m budget battle

It wasn't a marathon 3-day stalemate between the parties which characterised this year's budget decision, but an extreme polarisation of opinion between coalition supporters and opponents.

Councillors passed a below-inflation £1.5m budget increase which will see a 6% workforce reduction as part of a £28m savings package over two years. This will be 'front-loaded' so that £18m is found in 2011/12, however real headcounts are expected to fall by around half this figure due to the high level of currently unfilled positions.

Cuts came in some unexpected places too as time pressures resulting from party positioning meant individual arguments couldn't be made in full.

LibDem cabinet member Cllr Daisy Benson reprints her planned speech emphasising the urgent need for action and bemoaned Labour's "large number of... politically-motivated amendments" which all failed to stall progress on vital decisions.

Identifying interest and self-interest

Conservative 'finance Czar', Cllr David Stephens, pointed out how Reading's public debt had ballooned under Labour from £41m in 2002 to £200m in 2010 and insisted that although the cuts were necessary "not one member of this coalition... took any pleasure in making those decisions."

He added that the coalition had used public consultations responsibly to listen to potential concerns and offered as an example the extension to library opening hours which is being made while other councils are  cutting back.

And LibDem Cllr Gareth Epps provided a further support to this side of the debate by explaining how  success in budgeting is more about sticking within projected forecasts to enable long-term planning. He noted the official audit report into borough finances had stressed "inadequate supervision of over 100 consultancy arrangements worth over £10 million" and another £6m on agency staff, both of which previously contributed to excessive costs.

But Labour's ex-leader of the council, Cllr Jo Lovelock, refused to defend her party's record on borough finances. She countered with generalised criticism of what she called the Tory-led coalition's determination to "to slash public services with an ideological fervour."

Outside the Civic Centre Reading Trade Unionists staged a demonstration against the cuts agenda in an attempted show of force to coincide with the vote.

Unison representative Kevin Aubrey said, "We deplore the loss of jobs on that scale," and argued services would see a 'substantial' impact.

Tories attacked this line of thinking. Cllr Richard Willis, picks up on the 'symbiotic link' between Labour and Trades Unions to suggest there is a vested interest at work and imply this makes them incapable of any impartial analysis.

LibDem counterpart, Cllr Warren Swaine, also attempts to put the debate in perspective by recalling last year's claims by Labour that services were already cut to the bone and further efficiencies were unrealistic - something he helped disprove in drawing up proposals.

Meanwhile Unison's former Labour councillor, Tony Jones, is clearly confused whether the budget is better or worse than it might have been - he hails the coalition for listening on a parking subsidy for Reading Farmers Market and then claims this shows a lack of vision.

Similarly, another former Labour councillor, Chris Goodall, backtracked on arguments to help encourage political representation from all socio-economic groups ...if it would ensure the future of the concessionary bus fares policy for pensioners which he helped introduce nearly forty years ago - well, he is retired now!

Identifying 'the vulnerable'

Leader of the council, Cllr Andrew Cumpsty, argued that ordinary tax-payers hit by the credit crunch and the squeeze on incomes are currently most vulnerable and proposed the freeze on Council Tax would bring widespread relief to help maintain living standards.

Meanwhile deputy leader of the coalition council, LibDem Cllr Kirsten Bayes, has been prominent in arguing that this budget successfully balances financial and social pressures in a situation forced on the council by changes to the government grant formula.

She said, "This is a budget that protects the vulnerable and makes the very best use of the resources available," arguing that cuts to adult social care are offset by increases for child protection, support for the elderly and people with learning disabilities, while the voluntary sector would see a shake-up to see funding directed to areas where it can better used.

But Reading's sole Green, Cllr Rob White, can't condemn the coalition enough. He notes the headline figures to assert his opinion that the Conservative-LibDem partnership are "villains preying on the weak and vulnerable", vowing to ensure the public remember this message come election time.

Election campaigning is uppermost in the minds of his Park ward opponents as Labour activist Richard McKenzie also refused to be convinced, preferring instead to hark back to the 1980's and repeat a classic piece of fear-inducing polemic: "I warn you not to be old, not to be ill, not to be weak..."

So it'd be very interesting to see how they actually voted... handily Cllr Benson provides a record.

And she says the opposition voted decisively against everything they are claiming to support!


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