County Council Feb 20: the budget meeting

It’s a cold February day and it’s cold in the council chamber for today’s county council. It’s the budget meeting so maybe enough heat will be generated in the debate to keep us warm.

There seem to be a lot of absentees today. Surely they’re not all skiing. Or stuck in York unable to get a train back to Cambridge which is the Labour leader’s excuse. And non-attendance is reflected in the public gallery. There’s a couple of press people but nobody else.

Prayers today are from a non-conformist minister who invokes the story of Solomon and the disputed child to inspire our conduct during the day.

In announcements we hear, inter alia, of the sad death of Alan Rodger who had served for some time and with distinction on the School’s Forum and whom I had known as a fellow trustee at the Morris Education Trust. Click here for my post regarding his funeral.

There are neither public questions nor petitions although one question had been submitted. It’s another question about the Shire Hall site and the Chair asks if it’s necessary to continue to answer them. He asks for more clarity to be given regarding the issue of public access to the site after the Council has moved out. The chair of C&I responds and as a part of this response is critical of unnamed local Labour councillors who he says deliberately spread misleading information.

There’s a bit of a hooha as the two referenced but not named Labour councillors wish to speak but are not allowed to under standing orders.

There are then proposed changes to the Council’s constitution including one very bad proposal to take from the GPC the responsibility to propose a budget (click here for my previous post on this matter). I speak against it and quote from my post. I add a 4th reason why it’s bad. It forces the parties into submitting competing amendments and doesn’t allow for them to add value. I’m supported by Labour. Unsurprisingly Tories speak in favour of the change but miss the point. At the vote the Tory whip prevails and it’s carried 32 to 19 with 2 Labour abstentions.

Now in for the substance of the day, the budget debate, but before we do standing orders are suspended to allow multiple and longer than usual speeches during the debate of this item only. One of the Labour councillors asks if she may now speak given the suspension. Sadly no because it’s only for this item. Nice try.

The Council Leader, and Leader of the Tory Group, opens the debate and refers to the budget gap of £4million which has to be closed. Now we have 5 minute speeches from the leaders of the political groups. More heat than light.

Now the three amendments. The Tories surprise us (me anyway) with talk of establishing a new committee to address environment issues (do they mean climate change?). And full of bombast about achievements ‘since we’ve been in power’. Lots of speeches against of course including passion, highlighting the long terms impact of not raising council tax by the full 1.99%, parochial concerns like potholes in St Neots, hobbies such as cycle ways (laudable nonetheless), self interest (system works for me) and references back to the days of the Coalition. We end up obsessing about potholes.

We go to the vote and unsurprisingly it’s carried 30 to 20 with 3 abstentions (2 Independent and 1 Labour incorrectly recorded) so the amended motion now becomes the substantive motion. But we’ve got two more amendments to get through before we get to vote on that. Will we be out in time for lunch? It’s now 1210.

Now the Lib Dem amendment. Lots of proposals along the lines of sunlit uplands. Rather unfortunate personal points being made by the Tories but little constructive challenge. I second the motion and when I speak I do my best to emphasise the positives in the amendment: focus on the climate emergency, support for children’s centres and †he youth service and extra money for local highways. Tory leader gets to wrap up as is the way of the world and works himself up into quite a lather calling it an ‘embarrassment’. All suggests it might be quite reasonable. At the vote amendment is lost 17 for (Indies support) to 30 against with 6 abstentions (Labour).

1300 and we break for a ‘comfort break’. So no lunch and we’re back in at 1310. Just enough time to grab a sandwich.

Finally the Labour amendment which overlooks climate change and has cast off the financial rectitude preached by Gordon Brown. This time there’s a more measured Tory response, maybe they recognise who the real opposition is, with all the Labour councillors queueing up to speak in the manner of the Guardian, the long essays not the shorter opinion pieces. Tory leader is unpleasantly critical and brutish. He’s not wrong in his criticism but there are ways of delivering it and he’s doing it badly and unpleasantly. Unsurprisingly amendment lost 6 votes for to 43 against

Now we have the pleasure of debating the motion as amended and we have the chairs of the 6 service committees (all Tories of course) speaking. Methinks it’ll be a refrain of what we heard from the Tory leader when he proposed the Tory amendment. And so it is and we all get so beaten up by the continuous litany of ‘haven’t we done well’ that there’s nothing left in us to engage in any debate. We all yawn. Even the seconder of the motion declines to say anything.

The budget is passed 31 to 19 with 2 abstentions (the two St Neots councillors).

Then its written questions (there are none) and questions for the Combined Authority and its Overview & Scrutiny Commitee. There’s one question for the Combined Authority about the decision not to have any more meetings in Cambridge.

And that’s it. We find at 1425.

(I’ll be doing a more sober analysis of the three amendments shortly)

 

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