Thursday, February 26, 2009
Voting LibDem - What's the Point?
Special Council this evening to finally consider the Cabinet's proposed budget for next year.
Everyone acknowledged that this was the most difficult budget round in living memory - and of course the challenges faced by Darlington Borough Council are no different to those faced by local authorities up and down the country. Still it was good that after listening to the public, and finding additional savings, the Mayor's Charity Shop, the South Park Aviary and the cycle and pedestrian training for schoolchildren could be saved pending further discussions. Although the opposition is loath to ever mention it, Darlington has a reputation for delivering excellent value for money, as evidenced by the assessment of the independent Audit Commission.
Tonight's debate centred on an amendment moved by the Conservatives - not about how money could be saved, but rather the mechanism for monitoring progress during the year. Conservative contributions were somewhat muddled - according to Cllr. Heather Scott this is because they are a democratic group, but anarchy seemed to reign. We had eveything from Cllr. Charles Johnson praising "a Conservative budget" to Cllr. Bill Stenson who wanted to close the Civic Theatre to keep the toilets open in Heighington.
Contributors like Cllr. Tony Richmond and Alan Coultas were heard in respectful silence. But with so little ambition or foresight on the Tory side, it wasn't hard to rebut their arguments. After all, as Cllr. Steve Harker for Labour pointed out, last year the Tories wanted to cut the Council Tax by selling land. That strategy we now know would have caused a financial meltdown for the Council. At this, one or two Tories shifted uneasily in their seats.
The Conservatives also spent some time trying to steal Labour's clothes. They wanted management of vacancies amongst Council staff, but amongst the 60 redundancies proposed in the budget, no less than 30 are currently-vacant posts - clear evidence of the measures the Tories claimed they wanted to champion. They went on to demand more innovative arrangements to save money - ignorant apparently of hook-ups like the Darlington/Stockton partnership which is saving Council Tax payers money on both sides of the border.
Light relief was provided as always, however, by the LibDems. Group Leader Martin Swainston angrily denounced the Labour administration for never following through on their promises. It took my colleague Geoff Walker, in a wonderfully understated speech, to gently point out that not only had Cllr. Swainston missed the Cabinet meeting when the budget was considered, but no fewer than all of the 6 scrutiny meetings devoted to the Council's finances - on the 12th January, the 15th January, the 19th January, the 22nd January, the 29th January and 10th February 2009.
So discussion of the Council's budget was limited to only Labour and Tory councillors, because the LibDems couldn't be ar**d to turn up. If this were more generally known, I wonder whether residents in Hurworth and North Road would be prepared to continue to return these clowns?