Account by Paul Woodhead Councillor for Hednesford South, Cannock Chase District Council and member of the Green Party
This was the first budget debate I have attended since being elected to represent my neighbours in Hednesford South in May 2016 and not knowing exactly what to expect I thought I would put on record the points I made during my speech to Council. How I voted on the main revenue budget votes and a response to some of the emotion laden points raised by the Leader in his summing up.
Points of my speech
This is not a verbatim reproduction of the speech I gave and this can be found in the recording which Cannock Chase Green Party volunteers broadcast through Facebook Live and available for all to view and hear. Again I will apologise for the sound quality however as the council members voted against my motion to record and broadcast our meetings we have to undertake this as volunteers from the public gallery from my mobile phone attached to conference table microphones I have purchased myself. On this occasion due to the length of the meeting and the battery life of my phone when broadcasting the phone ran flat with about 15 minutes of the meeting to go.
You can find my budget consultation response at this link as I believe all council undertaking should be conducted in the full light of public scrutiny. You will always know my views on each topic discussed even if you don’t agree with me hopefully you will understand how and why I hold the views I do putting our community first.
One of my biggest concerns with the budget following the consultation response is that it puts “things” over “people”. I also highlighted that some of the terminology of some aspects of the consultation does not help with engagement for example referring to “Post Deleted” rather than jobs and livelihoods taken away means residents will focus on the things like floral displays rather than the job cuts. I reiterated my position that this was a list of cuts, many of ones “saved” were not going to happen anyway rather than a financial recovery plan. Whilst acknowledging the hard financial times the council, indeed all local government is in, I emphasised that this is unlikely to change in the future. The budget presented is a very good officer led budget which matches the services provided to the money and resources available and the cuts delivered where an accountants answer to the problem. The budget does not reflect any level of civic leadership I asked where the big ideas are when we know that we will be looking at more cuts in the future why are we not looking at alternative sources of income as suggested in my budget consultation response, which I have not been approached by the leadership to discuss. (So much for the Independent Peer Review suggestions about involving the wider membership).
The consultation, which I praised at the length of time taken to engage, represents a missed opportunity to engage in a bigger debate and big discussion about what our communities want from local government. I highlighted the leadership shown by Surrey County Council in proposing a 15% council tax increase, to be clear I do not advocate a 15% increase, but I do think we need to engage in a larger discussion of what can be provided for the money otherwise the public, our residents, will only see we can cope with less every time. I expressed my disappointment that Surrey had capitulated under apparent pressure from the government and the Conservative cabinet members of central government which reside in the County – bought off from helping a discussion about the destruction of local government and the local services delivered which are being decimated across our communities. I asked where the big ideas were in relation to the role and purpose of local government, the vision for the future which is sadly lacking. Should we be discussing unitary authorities in the County and I highlighted an example of a very small unitary authority approach which works in other countries. We have the most centralised local government in the western world where the only choices for local government are to implement what the centre allows them to implement, not what communities and civic leaders determine are the priorities as we see with the restrictions on social housing in the District. I further challenged why, with this destruction of local services, were not every councillor in the room leading the front of every anti-austerity march, where was the motion to push back to give local representatives the money, authority and responsibility to deliver the services needed by their community. Saying you oppose cuts then delivering cuts shows how shallow words must be replaced by action.
I spoke in support of some elements of the conservative amendment budget in particular the need to reduce the number of cabinet portfolio holders from nine to five and the number of scrutiny committees from the labour proposed reduction of six down to four further down to two. I spoke of the benefits from the LGA training course I had just completed as the “Next generation Leadership” course in particular the role and purpose of scrutiny. I committed to write to the party leaders and the Council Managing Director with my thoughts. I also spoke about the need to modernise the process of council in respect to use electronic means rather than printed paper, I wonder how much paper is wasted through the printing of huge tomes of papers for every councillor over the year. This was something I highlighted in my budget consultation response and indeed at my first full council meeting.
Response to Other Parties
In his statement to introduce the Conservative amendment budget the Leader of the Opposition made explicit reference to my budget consultation response drawing out three points from my 20-page submission.
- There is too much data and too little information to make an informed comment
- This is not a financial recovery it is a list of cuts
- I have an ideological objection to the premise of cuts
The Leader of the Opposition agreed with my first two points and I thank him for taking the time to read my submission. There was no evidence of the same courtesy from the Leader of the Council.
The third point the Leader of the Opposition used to make the following point quoted from his speech submitted in writing
‘The Green Party of Brighton Council, where they have a large number of Councillors, declared “If the Green Party in office were to implement a large cuts budget, just before the 2015 General Election, that would disillusion and alienate many new supporters. It is likely it would severely damage not only the local party but the national party’s prospects in the election. The Brighton & Hove Green Party will not support ant Brighton and Hove Council Budget for 2015-16 that makes further cuts to local services. We support a no cuts budget.” In other words, the Green Party sets itself above the workings of any Local Authority, even if it means setting an unlawful budget. Just as the Militant Tendency, the Trotskyist Group of the Labour Party, did in the late 70’s. We don’t want that in Cannock Chase do we.’
This does highlight the difference we want to make as the Green Party locally where we need to challenge the status quo and by accepting that the council are provided with sufficient resources to make further cuts we would, like all the other political parties, then continue as apologists for the implementation of austerity and cuts. I would rather set ourselves above the workings of any Local Authority to fight for a better deal for our councils to deliver the services our communities expect of them.
The Conservatives put four very minor amendments to the budget which further demonstrates how close these political adversaries really are or how little the ruling party will listen to any ideas other than their own. The roles are reversed at the County Council.
In his summing up the Leader of the Council saved several direct comments towards me in an emotional attack against a single voice of opposition.
In relation to my point about there being too much data and too little information he directed me to read my papers and I would find all details there.
For clarity I do read all papers for the meetings I attend and spend several hours preparing remarks to the point that other than the Chair and the Leader I probably comment most. I do this as a lone councillor without the number of councillors either Labour or the Conservatives have to marshal the same responses. My point was that several options in the budget consultation just stated the cut proposed and details to follow. How we can understand the impact of reducing the number of people in the Environmental Health Department for example or the unspecified cuts to the Inspiring Healthy Lifestyles contract without a risk assessed business case is beyond belief. It is much easier to understand we are going to take out floral displays for example and hence the consultation focuses on the urgent rather than the important.
In relation to my point about other sources of income the Leader maintained that his administration was successful in increasing business rates from increased commercial activity, quoting Mill Green as a case in point (more on that shortly).
For clarity the Leader completely missed my point and demonstrated his unidirectional thinking and lack of progressive vision for the local authority and the residents of Cannock Chase. If he had read my budget consultation response submission, he would have seen ideas about municipally owned energy or bus companies being delivered by other councils. We cannot rely upon business rates and new homes bonus to deliver the finances we need to be creative and innovative. If we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we always got – more cuts and less money.
In response to my points around action against cuts and austerity the Leader stated that neither he nor any of his group wanted to undertake cuts and had lobbied for transition funding after the power station had closed and wanted the support of our MP to do a deal for Cannock Chase like the Conservative MP’s in Surrey have done to bribe their council not to make a referendum issue of council tax rises.
Other than one other local councillor not one person has been to demonstrate against the cuts and a further councillor regularly writes in the paper about the impacts of Conservative government policies. No other councillor actively or vocally looks for real alternatives or speaks for the change needed to fund local services adequately. Talks cheap and we see no action to support it and then the Leader delivers a Tory agenda budget.
The Leader also highlighted my (and indeed our local party’s) opposition to Mill Green, pausing to confirm we still oppose it then in turn accusing me of wanting to bankrupt the council because without the business rates the council would not have money for even the most basic of services.
There are several elements to our continued concerns regarding the Mill Green development in summary that the massive increase in traffic would create chaos through the Orbital and Tip islands; the environmental damage to the Mill Green area and nature reserve; the concerns whether people will come in the number anticipated to keep it financially viable when we are expecting people to travel out of Birmingham past similar shopping to come to Cannock; the detrimental impact this will have on our town centres and the small businesses which are the life-blood of our local economy; the significant increase in zero hour, minimum wage jobs in retail where we already have too many of those from Amazon and similar where we need aspirational high skilled jobs which match the housing and development needs outlined in the Local Plan. The chase for business rates is the driving force behind this administration’s support for Mill Green and then one wonders about the strength of negotiation in the community contribution money from the developer, also known as Section 106 money.
The point the Leader laboured about making the authority bankrupt demonstrates his, and his administrations, lack of vision and understanding that other opportunities for alternative revenue streams as set out in my main speech. This linear thinking will create a groundhog day of budget cut decisions in years to come. We need creative and innovative solutions to future funding coupled with a principled stand against the premise of cuts to protect our communities and plan for a fairer future in Cannock Chase.
The Leader did reference my desire for us to be a paperless council and use a tablet system for councillors to receive and read papers by saying this was already in action and that they were already ahead of me on this.
This is good to hear but cannot say whether this is an initiative arrived at from other sources or a response to my motion in June 2016 or budget consultation response in October 2016 but is good news however it has arisen. One point on communication though, it would have been nice to be informed of this across the chamber so all members know what is going on not just a select few. Another point raised in the Independent Peer Review.
Finally, I was accused of being the most right wing Green Party in the Country by the Leader in his closing statements because I didn’t vote with the Labour group and supported the budget being referred back to cabinet for consideration of the Conservative amendment budget. The Leader also referenced our community newsletters and social media presence in stating that I would not include this information beyond the council chamber.
I will always vote after careful consideration of all the facts at hand in good conscience for all the people of Cannock Chase and in particular to those in my ward of Hednesford South. I am not whipped to vote in line with party politics and a good idea is a good idea wherever it originates. The residents of Cannock Chase need councillors working together to achieve the best for the community and not block political voting. You can read below how and why I voted the way I did and I am always happy to discuss with any one at any time this or any other matter, my contact details are widely distributed and accessible to all.
The point about dissemination of information I am proud that I use my council allowance to pay for the quarterly community newsletter and spend a proportion of my time on social media so that residents can see what I am doing and judge whether I am working hard enough for them. He may have banned us from attending public events through the District and Town council but he will not silence a voice for the community in the council chamber, in newsletters, the press or social media.
How I voted and Why
There were two key votes on the general revenue budget, the first was to refer the budget back to cabinet for reconsideration based upon the amendments proposed in the alternative budget by the Conservative group and the second was to accept the budget proposed by the cabinet.
I voted with the eight attending Conservatives to have the budget referred back to cabinet.
This was for two main reasons. Firstly, that one of the proposals included in the alternative budget included the reduction of scrutiny committees and cabinet members which I firmly believe should be implemented and would reduce the cost of running the council. The amount of additional allowances (pay) councillors receive increases for those named as committee chairs and cabinet posts and the number is disproportionate to the responsibilities. It can’t be jobs for the boys (and girls) especially when we are reducing the number of heads of service as part of the budget which was eventually approved. The second reason was the broader points raised in my speech in that if this budget was approved as it stands it lacks the vision or aspiration to address the underlying financial pressures and as such will not deliver best value for Cannock Chase.
I voted against accepting the budget for the same reason which was passed by majority vote from all Labour and the attending UKIP members.