Last Thursday I had quite a long day up at 5:30am, tea and toast, emails, shave and a shower and off to Endeavour House to be there for 8am to be interviewed by Eamonn Holmes on the Sky’s fast moving Breakfast News show.
That is always a strange experience; cameraman, a moving camera lens straight in front of your face and an ear piece to listen to Eamonn and a Councillor from Liverpool, neither of whom you can see; we chatted about the cuts and the Budget meeting here in Suffolk and then got on to who is responsible and to blame for the cuts, I said what I know to be true is that after 13 years of Labour mismanagement and the ridiculous situation where this county is spending more that it takes in its tax base we are having to deal with the consequences of that and Council budget cuts are one such consequence.
Next was the group meeting and we discussed the budget and the amendments that were proposed by Labour and the Liberals then into the foyer to record a video Tape for Look East with Kevin Burch just in case the Council Meeting by the tiem Look East went out at 6:30pm and I promised to do a live interview if we were finished, as the meeting ended at 8:05pm they used the tape.
Then a quick sandwich and Councillor briefing from Andrea Hill on where the New Strategic Direction was up to and into the Chamber for what turned out to be a 6 hour meeting, we certainly debated the budget and then some.
Just as last year and the year before that when I was Cllr. Jane Storey’s Assistant Portfolio Holder for Finance and Resource Management; I had the honour of seconding the Budget motion and so got to speak twice firstly when the Liberals tabled their amendments and then to sum up the debate before Jane put the motion to the Council.
First came Labours amendment with regards the school crossing patrols and then came the Liberal one. Whilst I accept that with only 4 members the Labour group will struggle to put together a credible alternative to our budget one line item was a bit think on the ground for all the rather feeble rationale from their Leader that they only tabled the one in the hope we would adopt it, I’ve heard some excuses in my time but really!
Then came the Liberal’s amendment and to be fair I was somewhat torn by it and said on balance I could not support it, which surprised a few, as in the five years I have seen a budget debate this was by far the most work they had ever put in fact I would go so far as to say, you could add all the other amendments together and this one was longer, a whole side of A4 albeit big print but nevertheless a whole side, I mentioned that in preparing for the debate I had looked up my previous notes and in February 2009 I had accused them of perhaps not realising when the deadline for submission was as it as so short and clearly rushed.
Unfortunately as is often the way of these things when you got into the detail you could clearly see that rather than a detailed critique of our proposals it was nothing more than Political Showboating not discussing some of the more difficult subjects in my Portfolio or anyone else’s come to think of it but just those subject that have been on the front pages of the press pure Political Showboating.
But it gets worse, much worse, when it came to where they would find the money from it was scary, they were even suggesting that we use service reserves and contingency funds to stave off having to do things, but then don’t worry folks just as in 2002/03’s Budget when they put up Council tax by 11.9% and then the very next year when they put it up again by 18.5%, if it goes wrong they can always make the people of Suffolk pay for it, simples yes!
Both amendments started and in Labours case ended with the issue of the School Crossing Patrols and we must have sent two and a half hours on this every subject. To my mind getting children to school safely is everyone responsibility their own, parents and drivers and I actually suspect that most children who walk to school have to cross more than one road and do so safely with their parents or friends because they take responsibility to follow the right way to do it.
During the debate Cllr. Guy McGregor said that School crossing patrols were being maintained until the end of the summer term to allow Community Groups, PTAs, schools, Parish and Town Councils and individual businesses to support a crossing service if a community valued it. I am sure over the coming months local County Councillors will be taking the lead in helping those communities work out how to do it. For my part I am going to speak with the schools in my division and see if any way to although most have travel plans and school crossing patrols do not seem a priority.
In my closing remarks I talked about a survey by the East Anglian Daily Times where they asked in an on-line poll ‘Would you pay more Council tax to save threatened services?’ 25% said yes and 75% said no. To me the whole budget process is about helping those families in Suffolk who are struggling in these difficult times and I can thing of no better way to support people who are on fixed incomes and low wages that freezing the tax they have to pay and are struggling to pay.
The following morning I popped down to my local Newsagent and got a copy of the East Anglian Daily Times to read what was said and then back home to do radio interviews with Town 102 (Ipswich Local Radio) and Mark Murphy’s show on Radio Suffolk. On Nick Pandolfi’s breakfast show a number of people has texted and twittered in how angry they were at the cuts and I tried to address the point’s one by one saying if we did not do that what would we cut, which of course is the real challenge of objecting to a particular cut. On Mark Murphy’s show he kindly played a tape of one parent who said ‘we would have blood on our hands’ over school crossing patrols, now it does not matter how sure you are of your course that’s not a nice thing to be accused of, just gone 8 o’clock in the morning and in any case in my Division there is not one school crossing patrol yet children seem to get to school mostly without any untoward incidents.
Next Mark read out that one listener thought I was being boastful on the Look East interview, I might be proud of our efficiency track record and that 82% of the £42.5M saving this year are coming from inside the Council but no Councillor would want to make cuts unless they have to, I certainly did not stand to do that but we are where we are. What I was saying on Look East is precisely that we have saved over £70M in back office efficiencies since 2005 and we intend to go much further and its this track record and what we are now proposing to do that has other County Councils wanting to come and talk with us about how we have and are going about it. That along with a zero percent rise in Council Tax built on a base line of zero percent rather than using the Government Grant to achieve it is something to be proud of in these difficult times. Then off to work in my other life and a string of meetings with clients.
All in all a tough couple of days but I can look forward to Tuesday when we start to plan for next years budget!