Council wound up tonight with a vote on how best £400,000 of environmental improvements should be allocated. It was an excellent debate on all sides, and was very revealing - for the LibDems, perhaps a little bit too much so.
In the light of comments made, Labour proposed that money be set aside, to be spent under the authority of the relevant Director. In response, Cllr. Mike Barker moved that instead the money should be divvyed up equally between individual councillors themselves. Interestingly, the Tories and LibDems, who supported each other's positions all night, concurred on this proposal too, and doughty Conservative campaigner Cllr. Doris Jones seemed to have a speech ready to endorse the plan.
In having my two penni'worth, I pointed out that whilst councillors should take a lead in providing community leadership, the Council should be listening to all sections of the community when deciding how to spend Council Tax payers' money, including partners like the Local Strategic Partnership, residents' groups and the voluntary sector. Councillors don't necessarily always know best. Darlington's Labour Council hardly requires a homily from the LibDems on accountability, given that we devised the Let's Get Cracking scheme which placed millions of pounds of Council spending on roads and pavements into the hands of local people themselves.
It was Labour's Cllr. Dot Long, however, who beautifully crystalised the arguments. She pointed out that whilst Labour's Council, through its draft Sustainable Community Strategy, wanted to tackle inequalities in the most deprived wards, the Tories had a fixation on fairness which meant treating wards like prosperous Hummerknott just like deprived Park East or Lascelles. I think there was probably some consensus on this point between the Tories and Labour, who were very comfortable with their respective positions.
So where did this leave the LibDems, who proposed the idea in the first place? Looking increasingly glum as the debate developed, I thought. If the LibDems have any values at all, they are around equality, but at the same time, they like to think of themselves as champions of the underprivileged (at least when faced with a Labour-controlled Council). Being a LibDem councillor, of course, means never having to take tough decisions which might prove unpopular, so how to square this circle? There was no answer from the LibDems on this point, and they slunk away rather sadly at the end of the meeting.
Interestingly, when I challenged him afterwards on the issue of social justice, veteran LibDem councillor Peter Freitag told me that he wouldn't have suggested that the money be split equally between wards, and that would have suggested some weighting to take account of deprivation levels. Peter's a wise old fox, and some of his colleagues would have done well to listen to his advice in advance of the meeting.