County council meeting Feb 18: the budget meeting

2018-02-06 09.45.53I forgot my iPad today so my account of the council meeting is written in arrears. It was an important meeting of course because the 2018/19 budget was set but in many respects it was a disappointing meeting with a little too much tribalism.

We were warned in advance that there would be a demo with maybe 50-100 present from the Cambridge People’s Assembly. As you can see it was fingers of one hand stuff.

Perhaps the high point of the meeting was prayers which were led by Rowan Williams: former Archbishop of Canterbury and now Master of Magdalene. He has immense ‘presence’ and I reckon the word ‘sonorous’ was specially coined to describe his voice.

We began with three public questions. The first about the cuts to Children’s Centres, the second about road works on Milton Road and the third about plans to move out of Shire Hall.

The meeting itself was really one big budget debate with three sub-debates. These comprise the two proposed amendments, from the Lib Dems and Labour, both of which were defeated and then the Tory budget unamended.

The Tory budget actually calls for a council rise of 2.99%, the highest that’s allowed, which would raise about £7.5 million. £4.8 million of that would be used to plug a budget hole (click here for more on that story) with the remaining £3.7 million being put into a new ‘smoothing reserve’. Going forward the medium term financial plan (MTFP) calls for a further rise of 1.99% for 2019/20 and then 0% thereafter.

The two amendments would use the £3.7 million to reverse cuts and/or enhance services. They only differed in some detail and both would have reversed the cuts to Children’s Centres and provide funding for improvements in highways maintenance and street lighting.

I spoke in favour of the Lib Dem amendment (surprise) and highlighted the deteriorating state of our roads (year on year decline over the last 4 years) and the reduction in the spend on them. I highlighted the foolishness of paying for road maintenance out of capital.

In the main debate I challenged the Tories on their financial management over the last 4 years which has brought us to the state that we are in today. I also highlighted the fact that they are still forecasting a deficit in years 3-5 of the MTFP whilst ignoring the option of further increases in council tax.

It was a bad-tempered day and the Chair saw fit to tell us to behave when we resumed after lunch. We were treated to five speeches from Steve Count, at least one from Labour which revisited the class war and several from Tories telling us how good they are. By contrast those from the Lib Dems were of course exemplars of objectivity and reason. But generally there was more heat than light. At least we were able to conclude business by 1525. I remember 4 years ago after an afternoon start we were still there at 2200!

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