Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Why we held out for change on Budget night

Council meeting anoraks plus anybody who may have been apprehensive about the outcome of last night's great Council Tax debate, whether through fear of cuts in services or of increases in taxes, will be aware by now that the proposed Budget for 2010/11, incorporating this administration's fourth 0% tax increase in four years, was eventually approved last night.

The reason it was "eventually approved", rather than being approved straight away, was because two members of the Community Group abstained on the first reading. I was one of those two.

I am proud to have served as part of the coalition that has managed the London Borough for Hounslow. I believe we have achieved many good things. I support the low tax agenda, subject to frontline services not being cut, and as I have said before it is to the great credit of the Leader of the Council, Peter Thompson, that he has overseen a team that has made this all possible.

So why did I and one of my colleagues abstain?

To understand our reasons fully one has to have some background knowledge about the way the coalition has developed over probably the last year or so. And when I speak about the development of the coalition I refer not just to the relationship between the two Groups, but also to how the respective partners have been served by the council organisation in general.

That period of time has been for us one long struggle. The first major indication that something was amiss was probably the Mogden expansion application by Thames Water, where officers even at the very highest level of the local authority engaged in unprecedented lobbying of elected members and on the night of the decision, having read reports and heard presentations from which important information was omitted, councillors from the big parties united to approve the application and leave the ICG, and the long-suffering residents of Isleworth and Hounslow South, high and dry.

But there was more, as Frank Carson might have put it. Section 106 money effectively stolen from the residents of Syon ward and relocated not only into another ward but into another Area Committee's domain also became a political battle which saw the ICG isolated as the mutual political interests of the big parties converged. The defiant organisational resistance to attempts by residents to help improve the Electronic Data Management System (EDMS), obstruction to individual initiatives to empower sections of the Voluntary Sector, intervention by those responsible for managing Communications to misrepresent the Mogden situation in a way that showed the ICG Lead Member and by association the whole Group in an unfavourable light and the Chief Executive's unwillingness to deal with our complaints about same in any meaningful way, and further Chief Officer obstruction over Mogden until the Leader eventually intervened all combined to create a situation in which Community Group priorities were quite demonstrably being dealt with in an entirely different manner than were Conservative Group priorities.

Apart from, in some areas, a blind and unhelpful departmental defensiveness on the part of certain Lead Members, the fault for this situation did not lie with our coalition partners. Except - and it is a very big "except" - that it was allowed to continue. Some Chief Officers became increasingly confident, in cases arrogant almost to the point of openly mocking us, while the low-tax bandwagon rolled smoothly through the year with devoted Chief Officer co-operation, and those whose wet dream the 0% Budget is were happy to remain oblivious, and possibly genuinely knew nothing about what was going on around them.

Added to that there was an element of political insensitivity. At the November 2009 Borough Council meeting the Lead Member for Finance forgot the name of the Group he was in coalition with, but was able to declare confidently last night (presumably in response to my plea for an "aspirational" budget), that the coalition's "aspiration" (i.e. not just his own or his Group's) was not to increase the Council Tax. Just that, nothing more.

I have to say it came as quite a shock to realise that, for sixteen years, I had put my family on the breadline and any other ambition I may have had in life on hold, so that some bloke in W4 would not have to endure the intolerable burden of having to pay the finance installments on his Bentley and another 10p each month on his Council Tax bill.

When all that is said however I still did want to support last night's Budget at the first time of asking. The councillor who suggested that I was electioneering could not have been more mistaken. As some Conservative councillors quite rightly argue, it is the relative poor just outside the benefit threshold who suffer disproportionately when their Council Tax bill goes up. The Leader, and the Lead Member for Finance, had drawn up a Budget which had quite skillfully avoided any incursion into frontline services. It did also include, it has to be said, a £300k package for the Voluntary Sector.

However, during my discussions with the Leader during the day, when I asked whether Community Group priorities could be given just that little bit more emphasis, it was clear that somebody - someone behind him - was playing hardball. Whom I don't know. What I did know is that the disrespect and indifference with which we had been treated by much of the corporate management over the past year or so was manifesting itself defiantly again, even as we approached the fourth and possibly most important Budget of the administration.

My pride would not accept that. I e-mailed my colleagues to tell them that as far as I was concerned it was a free vote (although we don't operate a whip, ordinarily we try our best to reach agreement before votes), and that they should vote as their consciences guided them.

A head count and an impromptu straw poll told me that, if two of us abstained, the Budget was going down by 28 votes to 27. That is what subsequently happened. Many of our partners, I believe, understood and sympathised with what we had done and our reasons for having done it. One certainly didn't, telling one of my colleagues (who had voted in support of the Budget) that we were "only a tiny part of the coalition" and that I'd had "no right to say the things (I had) said". Ironically, it was for the benefit of people who think like this that I had said them. Had it been said to me I would have replied that, right now, we would seem to be rather an important part of the coalition!

When I spoke to the Leader during the ensuing break in proceedings I made it clear to him again that all we wanted was a bit of respect and acknowledgement, and that those who had been advising him had let him down badly. He agreed - not only due to the necessity of the situation but also, I believe, as a matter of principle - and we secured another £250k for community projects (an Empowerment provision predictably described by New Labour as "a waste of money"). The meeting sat once again and the slightly amended Budget was approved by 29 votes to 28.

Needless to say I am not clairvoyant and I've absolutely no idea whether the Community Group will be involved in the next administration in any way, shape or form. As a rule of thumb we hope for the best and try to prepare for the worst. There have been mumblings that a coalition might be sought with individual members of my Group but not myself, but whether there is any truth in them or not I believe I know my colleagues better than that. But if we as a Group are involved we will seek to set out our stall more clearly at the beginning - in an honest, proportionate and reasonable way - and ensure that the organisation is structured in such a way as to respond with equal enthusiasm to the priorities of both or all the parties involved. That would avoid such a situation ever arising again.

I'm glad we've agreed a Budget that incorporates both a 0% tax increase and a substantial contribution to community projects and to the Voluntary Sector. All's well that ends well. Right now I guess we'll all be getting down to our respective election campaigns and let us see what comes out in the mix.

1 comment:

Old Major said...

Power games in the Council chamber ?
Perhaps you should christen it Manor Farm ?