It was the night of the budget at the Council and the bunfight of all bunfights was possible.
Last year’s elections left the council with 27 seats to Labour and 27 to the Conservatives. The Council was split evenly down the middle, but because next year’s mayor had already been chosen, the deciding vote would go to a Tory councillor – Doreen Stephenson.
Recently Adrian Owens left the Tory group to sit as an independent leaving the council with a majority of Labour councillors. It was too good to miss. Well, it looked like it would be more fun than what was on the TV. It was certainly interesting enough to have me visit the Council chamber for the first time in five years.
Behind the shouting and angry yelling (mostly the anger from the Labour members directed to the Tories), there’s something unspoken and wonderful about the local politics. Almost everyone who sits as an elected representative is a good decent person wanting to do the best for the ward they represent, or at least where they live (and with a nod to the ward they represent). There are some who aren’t decent and lovely, but I won’t go into that here.
I only stayed for the first couple of agenda items. Once the formalities are over (the first seven items on the agenda) the first substantive part of the meeting took place — the member’s allowances scheme. Basically everyone is keen to keep the status quo, except the one independent member who is in the firing line from all sides on this one. It’s soon obvious that 51 of the 52 councillors in the room are going to vote for the proposals and the remaining one will vote against (and will be the main target of fury from the other two groups). No change there.
On we move to the budget.
The most interesting agenda item is the General Revenue Account, the GRA budget. These days, this is the budget where the real decisions are made. There are other budgets that are discussed on the night, but the setting of the council tax follows the agreement of the GRA and it’s the one with all the speeches.
At the start of the meeting we had counted heads and it looked like there was one missing Tory. However, Rob Bailey sneaked into the meeting early on and levelled things up, blessing Owens with the opportunity to be budget-maker (possibly). However, it was clear that there were 51 knives out for Owens and so that might be unlikely.
The Conservatives put forward their budget. Some Councillor who I didn’t recognise is the Tory finance portfolio holder these days and he put forward a slightly apologetic speech which didn’t rouse anyone. There was no discussion — incredible, really — and a move straight to the vote. It was lost 28-26.
The Labour finance shadow stood up and gave a good speech — much better than I ever did, I’m sure. However, if you hadn’t read the figures that were handed out, you would think that the biggest difference between the two groups was the serving of alcohol from the “Mayor’s bar”. £800 a year could be saved if this lavish bar was closed. However, the reports showed that Labour intended to spend £141,400 extra next year over the Tories’ £95,700.
Most of the two budgets were the same, but there were some substantive differences, mostly around Housing and Regeneration, which led to the two group positions.
The vote came and Owens voted against the Labour budget, leaving the casting vote with the Mayor who voted against. Both the Conservative and Labour budgets had been defeated. Oops! Owens asks to speak.
It turns out that in the spirit of independent generosity, he had written to both group leaders and offered to listen to the budget proposals and would support the one that best fitted with his aims and where he could perhaps influence things. (This probably over-simplifies his proposal to the point of naive stupidity, but you get the idea). Naturally, this generous offer had been ignored by the Labour side, and had been politely sidelined by the Tories. He had little choice but to offer his proposals to the full council.
What followed was a glorious wish-list of stuff that sounded great. Some of which I completely agreed with — yes, let’s pay for our parking by mobile phone. I certainly can’t park in Wigan, pay by phone and then walk the 20 miles back to Ormskirk to do my local shop. After a good few minutes of “and another thing…” the mayor asked if there were any seconders. Haha! Of course there weren’t. So the motion fell. The independent leaflets just write themselves.
And so the Council was adjourned. The leaders would meet, then the two cabinets and then proposals would be taken back to the groups. After almost an hour, it turned out that no-one could agree on anything except the bits that were common in the two proposals. Mark Taylor, the Council’s chief finance officer and a smart fellow, had a revised budget proposal up his sleeve. It proposed that the Council should agree on all the bits that the two groups have in common, and then defer the rest of the spending until after the election.
The bottom line was that the budget would increase by £890,000 but with £240,800 of that put aside until after the election when the controlling group could spend as it pleased. Naturally both groups went for this.
Well, it wasn’t quite so straightforward.
Everyone trooped back into the chamber and the mayor put forward the proposal. Up jumps the Labour finance spokesperson and proposes an amendment that the Council should not spend any money at all on alcohol. Not a penny. Not just at member’s only shindigs after a full Council meeting, but stop the Mayor from serving a glass of wine to a visiting dignitary, or a glass of sherry for the little-old-lady carer of the year. West Lancs was to be the dryest of the dry councils — bringing in a saving of Eight Hundred Pounds.
Naturally the Tores saw red (or rosé) and couldn’t support it. The idea of being inhospitable was too much to bear and it was voted down — with the support of the mayor’s deciding vote.
Then, up jumps Owens to propose that the free ale and wine should be stopped after full council meetings. This led to debate about whether the proposal was budgetary or policy, but Mark Taylor stepped in to advise the Council that this had been reviewed in previous annual budgets and a saving of Five Hundred Pounds every year could be achieved by denying members a drink after a full council meeting.
For a moment it seemed that the whole budget, and the Council’s ability to meet its statutory duty to set the Council tax for 2015-16, hinged on that post-meeting tipple. Would there be a seconder? The Labour finance spokesperson stood up and seconded the motion and it was passed. The Tories abstained… in their opposition to abstinence.
The jam-tomorrow compromise budget was then proposed and 51 hands shot into the air, it was passed with only Owens showing dissent. By this time it was past 10pm and it was time to go home. There were another 10 items on the agenda and I really wasn’t in the mood to listen to the other budgets or the proposed motions.
It was fun being back in the Council chamber, but there was absolutely nothing that would tempt me back in there as a councillor. Those days may well be completely in the past.
In other news, I got my walks and gym visit sorted this afternoon. I took the long route to get 30 minutes walk from home to Sporting Edge at Edge Hill. Then spent an hour at the gym before walking down to the school. Picked up the children and made them walk home (much to their disappointment).
It was also parents’ evening, so shortly after getting home, I was heading back to the school for a chat about Lily and then waiting around before a chat about Joel. Lily, in particular, has done brilliantly over the past six months and I have no words for how incredibly proud I am of her — of how she has changed her attitude and worked really hard. She’s done good.
So today has been mostly defined by the fun times this evening. I did about 6 km walking (my phone died and I need to map it on google somehow) and a bit over 45 minutes in the gym. Good all round, I’d say.