Last Wednesday's Budget Council meeting was a fairly bad tempered one. There was the usual bearpit stuff that I'm used to. It's a bit of theatre a lot of the time and the absurd and occasionally the insightful are on display. What marked this one out was the rude and sometimes quite offensive comments made by certain members. I like the interplay between Cllrs, the ribbing and people expressing their opinions based on their beliefs. If you've got different views of the world you are going to clash. There were a lot of things at the meeting that didn't bother me. My old sparring partner Cllr Andrew Palfreeman claiming (wrongly as it happened) that the Green Party amendment was unconstitutional. It wasn't but it saw the Council adjourned for 15 minutes while the Mayor, Chief Executive and the Councils Head of Legal Services considered the dubious points made. Cllr Palfreeman had dramatically explained how our amendment was so calamitous that it could see Kirklees in the Supreme Court. Once the amendment was cleared for debate Cllr Palfreeman went to argue how our legally dangerous amendment was now insignificant and unimportant. Did this bother me? Not particularly. I found the whole thing just part of the entertaining absurdity of what happens at Full Council. Pointless you could argue and it could irritate you if you let it, but not offensive.
For me the annoying thing about the meeting was when certain Tory members started asking what 'bungs' the Green Group had taken in the past for voting for Labour's budget. The reason Greens have voted for Labour, Liberal Democrat and yes even Conservative Budgets over the last 17 years is because of the amendments we have put to Council being accepted. This is transparent, in full view and in no way can be described as a 'bung'. One bug bear they have is that the Chair of Overview and Scrutiny is a Green Party Councillor and that they believe that as the largest opposition group they should have that role. This may be what they regard as 'a bung'. The fact is that Scrutiny is supposed to be a non political role and shouldn't be used as a tool of opposition to the administration but instead be a non partisan 'critical friend' to the Adminstration. Sometimes Scrutiny will be challenging to decisions made by the Cabinet and offer alternatives. It isn't however another route for expressing the politics of opposition. The fact that certain Conservatives fundamentally misunderstand the role means that they really shouldn't be in that position. My colleague Julie Stewart-Turner is both hardworking and scrupulous in ensuring the independence of the Scrutiny function from Party politics and I can't think of anyone better for the role. As someone who is not a member of any of the larger political groups, and isn't seen as combative in Council meetings, Julie has a particular advantage in not being perceived as having any axe to grind.
Back to the meeting itself. I proposed the amendment because I wanted to see some real hope injected into a very depressing Council Budget. There was rightfully some discussion over the appalling financial settlement we have received from central government that offers us a real challenge with £14million dropping out of our budget next year on top of the millions we have already lost from central govt. The Conservatives were in full denial mode which any objective observer would regard as an untenable position. They said that the Council would not be in the financial situation if we had followed their advice in previous budgets but then offered no substantial evidence to back up this claim. It was simply an assertion. The fact that they were part of the All Party delegation to the Communities Minister to ask for our £14 million back rather implies they knew the reality of the situation. The fact they also put no amendment was also very telling. They argued the budget was 'unamendable'. The reality was at it was only unamendable for their more right wing members who illogically would vote against any Council Tax rise while wanting at the same time to not see any services cut. Their Government had made the rules of the game but they didn't want to play. Easier for them not to play! So they voted against our amendment, the budget and everything. It was a denial of reality and denial of their Party's responsibility for the mess Local Government is in.
Conservative Councillor Andrew Palfreeman was 'spot on' in saying that we need more trust between Councillors across Party and the people referring to 'bungs' whichever Party they were from was not going to encourage that trust. Wise words from an old hand but there are other old hands in their group and they appear to hold the sway and some (not all) of the newer members seem to take their lead from them. The Labour group have also not been short of their own problems, the factions, the suspensions and on the positive side some committed Cabinet members and the Leader David Sheard, soldiering on. I don't demean them by saying they are 'soldiering on' and goodness knows we need that at the moment! We also need more. We need ideas and political direction that shows we are not simply managing decline but reshaping and redefining what Kirklees Councils role is. Our proposal for a Local Housing Development Company is part of that but it is only one idea from one Party on the Council. We need people across Party to demonstrate some goodwill to each other and towards the future of the Council. If we can develop a Party of Goodwill on the Council we would achieve much and give real meaning to the Kirklees motto 'Together we serve'.