Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Setting the Budget for Darlington

It was Cabinet last night, and a chance to consider the responses to Labour's draft Budget proposals for 2010/11.

As you may have seen in the Echo, there was a demonstration outside organised by the Trade Unions unhappy with some of the suggested savings around overtime, Bank Holiday/Sunday working and essential car users allowance. On behalf of the Cabinet, Bill Dixon (who chaired the meeting in John's absense) and Resources and Efficiency Portfolio holder Chris McEwan went down to listen to what employees had to say, and respond to their criticisms. That accorded the protestors (who also spoke at the meeting) the proper respect.

At the meeting itself, representatives from the Darlington Story Sack and Toy Library organisation and the Early Years Inclusion Service thanked the Cabinet and councillors generally for the changes made - in the case of Story Sack, £60,000 of funding has been guaranteed to allow them to look for more money, whilst there will be further discussions outside of the budget proposals on the Early Years Inclusion Service.

At this point, I have to respond to my blogging LibDem colleague Mike Barker, who alleges that these were never true proposals in the first place - instead in a move that would have made Machiavelli himself blush, the Labour Cabinet threatened cuts in the knowledge they would be withdrawn. How heartless, says Mike.

And that's right. If there was a shred of truth in it. The idea that the Cabinet would cause needless worry by proposing false cuts is a monstrous charge and completely without foundation. I sat in during all the budget discussions, and no-one once suggested any such tactic - indeed if they did, I think they would be out of the Cabinet and the Labour Group pronto.

IMO, it says more about the LibDems, and the character of the administration they would lead, that Mike can even come up with such a suggestion. Value-free politics are, after all, the preserve of the Liberal Democrats.

That leads me into the freezing of the Council Tax this year. On that Mike came close to adopting a position, when he lauded the 3% increase set by North Yorkshire County Council. Certainly, some of the union members present criticized the Labour Cabinet, stating that a standstill budget took money away from the workforce.

Now Mike and the LibDems may have wanted to jack up the Council Tax by as much as they think they could have got away with this year, had they been in control (though you can bet they won't move an amendment to that effect on Thursday week). Labour has increased the Council Tax in previous years, when the circumstances dictated. As I said in my contribution, however, in a year when there is so much financial pain out there, it was incumbent on any responsible council to tax only where absolutely necessary, and not just to pile up balances to meet future problems ahead.

Away from the Town Hall bubble, many Darlington families have been hit by the Credit Crunch and the world-wide recession. Households where there might have been two wage earners now may have just one. Pay has been cut and hours reduced, especially in the private sector. People on fixed incomes, like pensioners, have seen their savings attract next-to-no interest whilst rates have been so low. A Council Tax freeze, was morally the right ambition in these circumstances for the town, and I'm proud to be part of a Cabinet that (subject to Council approval) has delivered it.

We project that in 2011/12, Council Tax will rise, but by just 1%. Darlington still has the lowest Council Tax in the North East, and this year is I think the only authority in the region standing by its residents in these difficult times by fixing a 0% increase. At the same time, we deliver first-class front-line services. That is just as it should be.


No Need to Lie :( said...

In Mike's defence I too have heard that much of the Council's cut back scaremongering was only so that they at a later date denounce them , making them look kind and generous to the voters and people of the town!

Is there an election coming?

Well done Mike let's expose the smoke and mirrors for what it really is "Election PR"

Darlington Councillor said...

Heard it from where? Was Mike at any of the meetings? Were you?

Mike hasn't "exposed" anything - he's simply made the same allegation he did last year without a shred of evidence. And as someone who was part of the Budget discussions throughout, I can confirm categorically that at no time was this sort of positioning ever a factor in our deliberations.

Can I be any clearer than that?

james said...

I think the decision to freeze council tax was a mistake - especially since demand for services has risen during the recession and the cost of delivering those services increases because of inflation.

However Mike's claim that there was some kind of pretend threat to certain services is ridiculous - the whole process is more likely a vote loser because people remember the cuts and threatened cuts more than they do the freeze in tax rates.

Making unfounded claims doesn't help engage people in the process - it's more likely to put people off using their democratic rights.