Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Council Budget decision and how nothing changes in Midlothian

With the ink not even dry on yesterday's council budget decision, I have already been publicly accused by one Labour councillor of "political point scoring". So here's my take on the proceedings.

Council was presented with the officers' proposals which we were asked to consider and approve. The SNP proposed a couple of amendments - to remove the proposed 15p rise in school meal charges and to delete the removal of the capital element of councillors' environmental allowances (£10k per councillor per annum - although the impact on the Revenue account is minimal). This has the effect of increasing slightly the amount required to be transferred from Reserves from the £2.6 million proposed.

Taking any funds from Reserves to balance the books is something to be avoided - as it simply puts the problem off to next year. However, as Labour points out, Reserves are currently quite healthy by historical standards and due to John Swinney's very late decision to cut 3.5% from grants to councils, in this instance I believe it is justified.

Let's be clear. It would be in Labour's interest to put off the biggest cuts to next year - to be announced as we head into a local election campaign, and that, I'm sure, was at the forefront of their minds as they argued that cuts right now are 'unnecessary'.

As I've pointed out repeatedly, the Labour Group on Midlothian Council does not speak to me. It lives in a world where it thinks it's one by-election from taking back power, where the national opinion polls don't apply and one day very soon, their boat will come in. Indeed, I am convinced it much prefers to lose every vote in the chamber than seek out my support and at least have a chance of winning one or two.

However, I do keep trying to open a dialogue. In previous years, there has been significant overlap between Labour's and my budget proposals. So I suggested to the Labour Group Leader, Cllr Derek Milligan, that perhaps we should set up a meeting and explore the options. Yet again, no-one came back to me, and depressingly, Labour played out its time-honoured charade of tabling its amendments by handing round a sheet of paper in the middle of the council meeting.

I described this at yesterday's meeting as 'neither professional nor adult' as a way to proceed. By contrast, when I last produced a formal budget proposal, I emailed it to all councillors 48 hours before the meeting. So why do Labour continue to behave like this?

I listened to Labour's proposals and agreed with them that the cut to community policing is a step too far. I expressed disappointment that they did not see fit to discuss their other proposals with me (it would have been in confidence) in advance, but I was not prepared to react to a gun placed against my head at the council meeting. Cllr Milligan's response was that they had only received information from officials at short notice so didn't have time. Which is pretty weak, considering I had been sitting in my office the previous day and Derek has my mobile number. What important information they had received on the afternoon before the meeting to prevent this they didn't say.

So in the light of the information presented, I proposed a removal of the cut to Community Policing, funded from Reserves (in addition to the SNP amendments), to allow a year to examine the alternatives. I may have supported more of Labour's proposals had they bothered to speak to me in advance, but I wasn't going to be intimidated into doing so. I asked for a seconder to my proposal, which (as expected) was not forthcoming, and then abstained on the full motion.

The critical point for me was that Labour highlighted the Community Policing cut as their overriding concern, with an impassioned speech on how bad it will be. I offered them a clear opportunity to get my backing on that, which they rejected in favour of their usual entrenched isolationist position.

So while I agree there is political point scoring, it's pretty clear to me who is doing it.

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