Unitary Council Pushes Through ‘Nightmare’ Budget

County Labour Leader Leigh Redman expresses anger at the cuts to jobs and services

Lib Dem Controlled Somerset Council has pushed through it’s nightmare budget smashing jobs and services in the hope of staving of bankruptcy. The Somerset Council Tax will rise by 4.99% and cuts of some £36 million were voted through whilst buildings and other assets were being sold off to try to bridge the funding gap. At the same time the Council would downsize its operations in what they called a ‘Transformation programme’. The Labour Group joined workers on the demonstration outside the Canalside Centre in Bridgwater and voted against the budget. Leader Cllr Leigh Redman (Labour, Bridgwater North & Central) said “There is talk about making our council the right size – or as it says in an executive paper ‘leaner and more productive organisation’, but the right size or leaner for what? We hear talk about providing statutory services, doing only what we are legally required to do. Where does this stop? What we are really talking about is creating a council for the money we have available!”

Demonstrators gather at the Canalside Centre, Bridgwater

The meeting, which lasted almost 9 hours, started with so many speeches from members of the public that most who had asked to speak weren’t heard. That included the Unions.

Those that did speak called on the Council to ‘fight for survival’ and to ‘get angry’ or to ‘lobby national government’.

After an hour of public lobbying the ruling Lib Dem group explained their budget and how it was all the fault of the Tories that they had to do it this way.

The Tories said they’d left the council in safe hands and it was the Lib Dems who’d managed to mess it up in the 2 years since they’d been elected.

Avoiding the Commissioners

UNISON-sticking up for local government workers

Jason Vaughan, the Section 151 officer, who’s job it is to call a section 114 notice if the council looks like going bankrupt at which point the Government sends in Commissioners on £1,200 a day to forcefully balance the books, said the budget presented “WAS a balanced one but couldn’t guarantee it would be a few months down the line. However, the basic problem was that costs were increasing faster than the Council had means of funding them.”

The Councils Finance Lead Cllr Liz Leyshon (Street, Lib Dem) said “Government intervention will be needed to save local government.” She blamed the funding gap on the covid pandemic, inflation, energy costs, interest rates, Liz Truss, the cost of care and the war in Ukraine. She also hinted that the Secretary of State, who approved the new unitary Council, might have in fact set up the new unitary council in ‘order for it to fail’.

Tory Leader ‘has a dream’

Tories didn;t get such a good ride…

Tory Leader Cllr David Fothergill (Monkton & North Curry ,Con) was the man responsible for the outgoing Tory administration and the incoming Unitary Council. He wasn’t going to get an easy ride. “You inherited 5 years of balanced budgets…” (hysterical laughter from Lib Dem councillors)..”a proud council handed over to you with growing reserves…” (shrieks of derision). Then claimed he had “a horrific nightmare in which the new council  had completely wrecked all this and then he woke up to find it wasn’t a dream after all”  (Lib dems falling about on the floor).

Green Leader Cllr Dave Mansell (Upper Tone, Green) rose and commented “Have I been dreaming? That’s not what has been going on in the council. The previous Tory administration was to blame for years of underfunding and austerity. That’s the reality”

Some familiar faces…

Lib Dem Leader Cllr Bill Revans  (Lib Dem, North Petherton) went on the attack “As Otto Von Bismarck said, politics is the art of the possible and we’re doing what is possible. But the Government must act now if local government is going to survive. This isn’t just about Somerset it’s about the future of local government everywhere. The system is broken and it’s a national crisis that needs a national solution. This is the legacy of 13 years of Conservative government and now we have no option than this budget or a section 114 notice. “

Fothergill wasn’t standing for this and reminded Cllr Revans that it wasn’t just the Tories that had ran the country into the ground it was the Lib Dems too as “the first 4 of those years they had been in coalition together”.

Red Green Amendment

Cllr Redman talks with Labour supporters at the demo

Labour and the Greens then moved an amendment calling for a demistiifying of what exactly the ‘transformation programme’ meant in real terms.   Cllr Redman (Labour) continued “…the projected savings are of course only good news if they can be met. I know you are aware of my concerns around transformation and the impact it may have on your assurance. Much of the assurance for savings rely on our staff doing more and/or things in a different way. I want to highlight your own concerns about the increasing cost of Adult social care and some elements of children’s services, issues that are national and mostly outside of our control, in fact issues that this current government seem to have no interest in actioning or helping councils with. In the coming financial year, as these problems continue and increase, at a time when staff are leaving this council in their droves and we approach further reduction in skilled staff through a transformation program, a program the full details of which councillors or staff are yet to be told. How can you be sure that without action from government to deal with escalating care costs and an increase depletion in skilled staff increasing our need for expensive consultants and locums how can you be sure that this combination of unknowns will not trip us over the edge? The Council’s transformation will result in fewer staff and those remaining staff members will be responsible for greater scopes of work within the Council. This will erode current standards of delivery and be deeply felt by service users and communities. Cllr Mansell and I wanted to ensure the transformation business case, in full, is scrutinised at the earliest opportunity.”

Voting tonight …

Bus protestors fight for their service

The Green-Labour amendment was accepted and became an integral part of the recommendation. It was now all down to the vote.

All Lib Dems supported the motion with the backing of 1 Independent giving them 52 votes, easily passing the recommendations. The 5 Labour, 3 of the Tories and an independent voted against making it 9 ‘nays’, whilst the bulk of the Tories, all of  the Greens and the third independent all abstained. That meant 52 for 9 against and 31 abstentions.

What does it all mean?

Cllr Brian Smedley sums up the meeting

Bridgwater Town Council Leader Cllr Brian Smedley (Bridgwater South, Labour) commented “Today was a spectacle for sure. The Lib Dems were determined to get through a budget they didn’t really agree with and the Tories, whose whole prior running of the council and the country had led them to this, were sat there willing them on, letting them do it and at the same trying to blame them. Not to mention trying to look like the good guys with their crocodile tears about the services that had to be cut. But the Lib Dems did it with aplomb. You can’t say that when they get a hint of power they don’t make the most of it and cling on in there. Yes they’d helped the Tories into Government in 2010 and ditched most of their own policies for that little bit of power then lost heavily themselves as a result. Yet they never see it coming. A few years down the line they’ll get the blame for this and the Tories will be back. That said the Lib Dems threw themselves into this. Liz Leyshon has been central to balancing the books and explaining every step of the way. ‘look at me I’m juggling fire’  she seemed to be saying – but to me it just seemed like ‘but you’ve burnt both your hands off..’

There IS a way out….

So where do we go from here? Will this budget survive the year? Cllr Smedley commented “The truth is the solution isn’t in this council chamber. It’s above and below. The Government has to realise what’s wrong and change the system. Local government can’t continue to fund this level of statutory provisions-especially adult social care, with a budget based on a limited precept system. So ‘a’ government has to step in and remove that item and then properly fund local councils. That won’t be a Tory government so let’s hope there’s a general election while the council is still solvent…”

And the ‘below’ option ? “Well, that’s the zero option,” explained the Town Leader “That’s where they go for ‘total devolution’ and give back ALL the services to the towns and parishes. And that should be sooner rather than later and before the 114 commissioners get their hands on them!”

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