Tory leader ‘No regrets” over attempts to freeze council tax

Date posted: 28-02-2013

THURROCK CONSERVATIVE leader, cllr Phil Anderson made a passionate speech at the budget setting meeting at Thurrock Council on Wednesday night (Feb 27th).

In the end, as reported, the Labour group were able to push through their budget and a slightly amended council tax.

We will be gauging further reaction from the leader at the weekend but here is a transcript of his speech.

Cllr Anderson said:

I want to start by acknowledging the role that Conservative members have played in shaping this year’s budget.

We made a decision before Christmas to engage positively with the budget scrutiny process and to bring forwards alternative proposals at an early stage.

We are pleased that some of our ideas have been accepted by the administration.

We also acknowledge that some of what the administration have put forwards we have been able to support, either as common sense or in line with our own thinking.

This reflects the type of opposition that we want to be: robust in our criticism, but positive in acknowledging where we agree and in offering creative alternatives.

Voters don’t want to see politicians bickering over every single issue, but they also don’t want to feel that they are a cosy little clique who agree everything behind closed doors. I hope that we have avoided falling into either of those stereotypes.

Having said that, the budget before us tonight is far different from that which would have been put forwards by a Conservative administration.

The truth is that an opposition can only ever have limited influence over what the administration chooses to do.

This budget is not one that we would have chosen, and it falls short of our aims in three important areas:

1. It keeps too much power and control at the centre;

2. It ducks the difficult long-term issues;

3. It fails to tackle waste and inefficiency.

Firstly, this budget misses an opportunity to let go of power at the centre and give real financial clout to the front line.

Money for schools should be given direct to head-teachers and school governors for them to decide what is best for their pupils, not managed by a centralised education bureaucracy on their behalf.

Services in the community should not be delivered by a one-size-fits-all council organisation where local voluntary, community, and faith groups have shown they can offer quality and innovation at lower cost.

Arts and leisure facilities should be run by entrepreneurs or non-profit organisations who have the vision, skill and focus to make a success of them.

The pressures of austerity and the opportunities of localism give us the chance to imagine a different type of council; one which trusts those who are best equipped to get on with the job rather than trying to do everything itself.

This opportunity is being squandered, and in a few years it may be too late. The longer we leave it, the more likely we will be forced into hasty cuts rather than properly planned reforms.

Secondly, this budget fails yet again to tackle the politically difficult issues that we all know about but dare not mention.

The Thameside Theatre costs local council tax payers half a million pounds a year to keep open. In tight economic times this is simply unsustainable, but yet again we keep it struggling on in council control rather than bringing in an arts organisation or entrepreneur who might offer the only chance of securing its future.

Social care costs take up more of our budget each year, but we refuse to re-examine them because they are deemed too sensitive to scrutinise.

Denominational transport subsidies are a perk that few local authorities still offer, but Thurrock carries on providing them, regardless of financial need, to the tune of over £1000 per pupil.

We cannot carry on avoiding making difficult choices, because soon the day will come when we have no money left and the choice is effectively made for us. Big changes need time to implement, and that time is slipping away from us while the administration worries about next week’s headlines and next year’s elections.

Finally, this budget avoids shining a spotlight into the murky corners of the council’s finances where waste and inefficiency still lurk.

In many ways what we have before us tonight is not a budget at all.

We have been presented with 176 proposals for savings and growths. The full budget contains over 11,000 lines of expenditure. 98% of these do not appear anywhere in the papers before us tonight and will carry on exactly as before.

Let me identify just a few of them for you:

We spend £1.5 million on taxis each year

We spend £9,500 administering a ‘Thurrock in bloom’ budget of just £1,000;

We spend £87 managing the equality and diversity aspects of collecting dog poo.

Most businesses now run a system of ‘zero base budgeting’, where every item of expenditure is examined every year.
It is no longer acceptable that any council just carries on spending taxpayer’s money by default, year after year, until someone specifically challenges it.

Overall this is a budget of missed opportunities.

We are missing the opportunity to pass power and money down to the front line;
missing the opportunity to tackle the difficult issues while we still can;
and missing the opportunity to really get to grips with waste and inefficiency.

The papers before us tonight are clear that we were about the miss the opportunity to resolve the issue of PCSO numbers with Essex Police, by unilaterally cutting match funding and losing 14 experienced officers without even understanding what kind of deal was on the table.

We opposed this decision in cabinet and we came here expecting to oppose it tonight. So I am very pleased that Cllr Kent has announced that funding will now continue for another year while this issue is properly resolved.

But the final missed opportunity is the one that will hit Thurrock the hardest. The government has offered a grant of over half a million pounds if Thurrock freezes council tax for another year.

Labour are proposing to reject this offer and instead take an extra million pounds out of the pockets of local people by raising council tax. Astonishingly, this money is not planned to be spent on front line services but will put straight into our already ample reserves.

This 2% tax rise will hit working families, many of whom are not seeing any increase in their salary to pay for it. It will take a million pounds straight out of the local economy, hitting shops and businesses who are already struggling with tough economic conditions.

I have said that I will not look local taxpayers in the eye and demand another penny from them unless I am sure that the increase is absolutely essential.

This budget fails that test.

I will therefore be proposing an amendment to freeze council tax for another year, and accept the Government’s offer of half a million pounds cash rather than a million from taxpayers’ pockets.

Our amendment also proposes that we continue to fund our PCSOs, and I am pleased that here at least we now seem to have cross-party support.

We will preserve a balanced two-year budget by bringing forwards savings on energy, EU carbon taxes, and maintenance from low energy street lighting that we proposed through overview and scrutiny but have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Mr Mayor, this is not the budget that I would have chosen for Thurrock.

As an opposition it is simply impossible for us to fix all of those issues tonight.

However, we can still ensure that the biggest missed opportunities are corrected.

I am pleased to move this amendment, and I hope that colleagues on all sides will feel able to give it their support.

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