Yesterday was the longest and hardest council meeting of the year; both physcially in terms of the lenght and stress of the meeting but also because of the issues involved. Nobody in the council is an expert on every section of the budget and, despite our claims, no party leader has a total grasp even given all the extra meetings we've had on this recently. Our meeting saw some robust exchanges and some honest views being set out - given that most of the budget was thrashed out well in advance, god knows how long we'd have been there if we hadn't of done that!
Firstly the Leader of the Council, Cllr Morphew, moves the budget framework; that is the high level strategy direction that the budget will follow. Cllr Morphew couldn't resist turning it into a kind of two-year review of his administration; incuding battering the poor LibDems - the first of many batterings and their party must have left the chamber feeling very down indeed. Cllr Morphew set out changes to the financial regime, improvements in housing, CCTV extension ... in fact, I accuse dhim of sounding like a Stalinist Minister reeling off the tractor production figures. Outgoing LibDem Leader Cllr Hereward Cooke took an open shot at Cllr Morphew but seemed to be leaving his best fire for later. LibDem Cllr Carl Mayhew (Mile Cross) joined us in abstaining on this item, against his own party decision to vote in favour.
Then the budget itself is moved. Cllr Alan Waters, Executive Member for Finance, made a decent and amusing stab at justifying the budget - including some very amusing powerpoint slides and a pre-emptive attack on other budget amendments. My only feeling was that Cllr Waters spent too much time knocking the alternatives rather than saying why his budget was the best. Then came the LibDem budget amendment...
... they wanted to have a council tax rise of 2.95% and give an extra £32,000 to Visit Norwich Ltd - and to pay for it, they'd cut the wardens programme by £92,000. I have to say on first hearing this I couldn't believe our political luck. The wardens are popular, hard working and successful - the LibDems wanted to sack some of them in favour of tourism???
Cllr Cooke seemed like a man who knew his time was up and hardly flourished on his last big occassion. He put forward the amendment but did so in a quiet way, almost hoping this might take the edge off the atatcks from other parties. A shame - Cllr Cooke is, despite his party's difficulties, one of the best orators on the council. This should have been his moment to really make one last stand before standing down. It feel flat; not a disaster but without any spark. The same can't be said for his Deputy, Cllr Brian Watkins (Eaton), who led with a clenched fist in a passionate defence on VisitNorwich. Cllr Watkins has long been an advocate of a strong tourist strategy and he clearly had the bit between his teeth. However, a good speech went bad when he slipped and said the LibDems wanted to give "32 million" to VisitNorwich rather than just £32,000. Oh dear.
The LibDem amendment cut little ice with other parties; I'm afriad I couldn't sit by and watch all this go through without making a fuss. Whilst I'm sure Labour would be happy just to let the votes roll through, Cllr Ramsay accused the LibDems of "throwing good money after bad" and suggested they were writing "a blank cheque" for VisitNorwich.
I was rather less kind. I said it, "looks like a visionless effort from a leaderless party ... it has the desperate smack of a party who knows its time is up ... we're dealing with a failing organisation who don't seem to be able to fulfill their purpose, wandering lost and trying to find some measure of support (that's the LibDems, not VisitNorwich) ... perhaps this is about undercutting Labour, well I tell you they aren't going to undercut the Conservatives; we'll deliver tax cuts because we believe in tax cuts ... thousands raised, thousands spend, thousands wasted but only now do the LibDems realise that tax is too high ... no ideas, no vision, no leadership and quite frankly, no hope!"
Cue LibDem groaning and plenty of cheers; I'm told even clapping from the public gallery. The LibDems lost their amendment 7 votes to 17 with 11 abstentions; including their very own Cllr Mayhew.
Then came our amendment. We would have;
Reduce spending on Unitary by £500,000
Use £300,000 to reduce council tax
Use £200,000 to support community projects through the People's Fund
In my speech, I said that this "was not an attempt to de-rail unitary - believe me, we've tried that - ...now is the time to say that the project has gone on long enough and cost more than enough ... other districts will be paying out just £300,000 so why can't we just spend what everybody else will ... this isn't about unitary, it's about unitary without the waste, it isn't about council tax, it's about a signal that this council won't accept ever higher bills, this isn't about extra funding for community projects, it's about the best use of our limit resources."
I have to admit to not knowing quite what the opposition arguements were. Cllr Waters was so nice and charming that I totally lost what he was saying. He did use a typical Labour trick of plucking a figure out of the air and claiming we'd cut service. Errr, no. There's only 2 cuts - the unitary budget and then everyone's council tax bills. We were then told that council tax bill cuts would only benefit the middle classes. I'm sorry, does everybody else not pay council tax? Finally Cllr Waters assured us that the rise was only 3p per week anyway. Well, that's OK ... if it wasn't my 3p in the first place and I can still spend it better than the council can.
The other-Cllr Little (Green, Town Close) made an incoherant and bizarre speech of which I can remember little (no pun) other than being accused of electioneering. I'm surprised that Cllr Read could contain himself, but it took Cllr Collishaw (Con, Catton Grove) to come to my aid. I then surprised the council by revealing that I am a conservative, favour a small council and tax cuts; one mans electioneering is another man's political principle.
After our sound defeat (31 votes to 3!) Cllr Ramsay, Green Leader, clearly felt his own side had missed their chance so tried to come back to our amendment which, needless to say, I had to stop using a Point of Order. Come on, chaps, let's do this right!
In the final vote on the budget, it was left to Labour and the Conservatives as the other groups chose to sit it out. The final result was 13 votes to 3; we voted against Labour's 3.7% tax hike.
A good debate, well natured and largely good fun. We all had our say, votes were taken and I suppose the will of the city was heard. Roll on next year...
... one pleasing footnote was that during another topic, I managed to force te delightful Cllr Lubbock to storm out of the chamber. Half a dozen other councillors congratulated me afterwards, saying they had always wanted to do the same thing!!!
More tomorrow ... a friend in the galery wrote some pen portraits which I will publish.