Council budget shame

On Monday I emailed Councillor Simon Henig to ask permission! to ask a question related to the budget at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting: When Cabinet was to approve the final budget. He refused my request and I was told that no back bench member (116 councillors) would be permitted to ask Cabinet ANY questions on their budget proposals.

So I then asked if he or any of his Cabinet colleagues would be attending the budget scrutiny meeting on Friday (today). To date he has still not responded to me, and NOT A SINGLE CABINET MEMBER ATTENDED!!

In that meeting, the only one before the budget is voted on by Full Council, I brought along some recommendations for Scrutiny to put to Cabinet. This related to stopping service cuts to neighbourhood wardens, museums and local AAP budgets as well as trying to stop reductions in staffing numbers in planning. I also had three proposals asking to provide funding to road and footpath repairs, careers advice services for young people, and stopping the council profiting from essential work to school buildings.

I gave 20 copies of this to the Chairman Councillor Joe Armstrong prior to the meeting. The only issue on the agenda was the budget. The whole purpose of the meeting was to make recommendations to Cabinet and to provide comments. Cllr Armstrong told me that he would not allow the proposals to be discussed because “It was too late to make any changes to the budget”. So why then bother with holding the meeting?

In the meeting I was refused the opportunity to discuss the proposals but I handed round the single A4 sheet anyway. Other than these proposals which I was refused to discuss, not one single councillor put forward a single proposal on the budget.

SO SCRUTINY DIDN’T MAKE A SINGLE RECOMMENDATION. THAT’S 116 BACKBENCH COUNCILLORS AND NO RECOMMENDATIONS PUT TO CABINET.

My proposals from the Lib Dem group have been passed to Cabinet with no comments from scrutiny. I was refused a vote on any of them, refused discussion on any of them, and at no point in any meeting has Cabinet allowed a single question to be asked of Cabinet members about their budget plans.

Next week full council will vote on the budget. Labour will simply vote through the report. Every single Labour councillor will then be responsible for that budget.

Expect just £5m of council money to go on repairing roads with the £10m from government – despite us having a backlog of £250 million of repairs needed.

Expect the council to continue to make profits at many different levels from repairs to the schools they own, and to put that profit not back into school repairs, but into reserves.

Expect neighbourhood wardens to be cut. Expect the planning department and the support departments around it to have their staffing reduced so less proper scrutiny of planning applications will be possible.

Expect an excellent plan to help young people with careers advice not to be implemented by September – partly the fault of the Conservative government delaying European funding (I wonder why), but mainly the fault of DCC for failing to agree to fund it.

Expect a budget which will see us spend hardly any reserves, and still have over £200 million in the bank.

Expect a hike in council tax of 3.9% and for much of that money too, to end up in reserves this year.

On the bright side. The six communications departments that we have been telling the council to bring together for years are now to be brought into one department.

If they had done this years ago when it was first put forward by opposition councillors – indeed its been put forward every year for many years – we would now have MILLIONS  OF POUNDS more to improve our roads or schools, or other services.

Why wasn’t it done earlier? Why have Labour wasted taxpayers money delaying so many areas of saving which do not affect front line services?

Answer?

Incompetence.

The undemocratic way in which the budget is put together at Durham County Council is unacceptable and must change. The only way to do it is to change the political leadership.

Labour Cabinet members seem blind to the fact that if you are transparent and work with the public, the opposition and even their own back benchers, good ideas can benefit not only residents but also them, the Council and even the Labour Party.

Simply ignoring everything which comes forward from outside that clique of 10 Cabinet members simply results in bad publicity all round. To coin a phrase from Forrest Gump – Stupid is as stupid does.

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