Last week’s meeting of West Berkshire Council could be described variously as interesting, different, divisive, dramatic, principled or theatrical, depending on your point of view. As I mentioned last week, the opposition Lib Dem and Green councillors walked out (or Zoomed off) about three-quarters of the way through the meeting due to a dispute about the way the proposed amendments were being handled. Comments on the matter were not slow in coming. Penny Post contacted the three parties on 3 March and were sent the following statements. More detailed coverage can be seen on p13 of this week’s Newbury Weekly News.
There are two main aspects to the issue. One is whether or to what extent correct WBC procedure or precedents were followed leading up to the walk out. If they were, then this would suggest that there might be something that could be improved about them. It could be argued that having the most important decision of the council’s year done in one four-hour meeting which doesn’t really start its main business until about two-thirds of the way in it cannot providing the level of scrutiny or debate that something of this importance demands.
The second, broader, issue is what effect this will have on the perception of local government and local democracy amongst the population, the vast majority of whom won’t have had the slightest clue what was going on (why should they?) and might have seen it as just another unedifying example of partisan strife. It certainly won’t do much to encourage someone to offer themselves as a councillor unless they revel in political conflict: this is not, perhaps, the most useful qualification at this level, although the events of last week suggest it’s currently the most important.
For a brief summary from West Berkshire Council about the budget itself (which almost risked getting forgotten about in the furore surrounding its discussion), click here.
If any of the three parties wish to add anything to these statements, please contact email@example.com. I also welcome comments or views from anyone else: please either email me or use the Comments box at the foot of this post.
Lynne Doherty (leader of West Berkshire Council)
Yesterday evening West Berkshire Council met to debate and agree the council’s budget for 2021/22.
Recognising the pressure on family finances during the Covid-19 pandemic by setting one of the five lowest council tax increases in England at 1.99%, the adopted budget treads a careful path between affordability, core infrastructure, and new investment to support our council strategies. The decreased (immediate) demand for adult social care services, due to Covid-19, alongside extensive financial support from central government during the pandemic, and the continued strong financial control of the council, means that we are able to support our residents’ finances as well as investing in vital services.
The Council had a legal obligation to set a budget to enable it to continue to collect council tax to pay for vital services and the Council’s Constitution sets out clear rules of debate, including that all business must be concluded by 10:30pm at the very latest.
At 9:56pm, with a significant element of the agenda remaining to be discussed and to ensure that the business of the meeting was concluded by 10.30pm, Cllr Alan Law called for a vote on the Liberal Democrat’s extensive list of 21 revenue budget amendment proposals, knowing that the Green Party’s amendments were yet to be heard and that no-one had yet had the opportunity to debate the substantive revenue budget itself.
At this point, with two exceptions, the Opposition Parties left the debate and with them went any hope of their residents having a voice on the main budget item.
It is regrettable that the Liberal Democrat and Green groups chose not to engage in the substantive budget debate tonight, choosing instead to depart the meeting in a theatrical argument over speeches. Thankfully, their attempt to derail the democratic purpose and leave West Berkshire without a valid budget failed – but it was a close run thing.
Even without them in the virtual room, and with shortened presentations, the meeting only just ended in time – the council’s constitution has a cut-off time for meetings of 10.30pm and we just managed to conclude all of the business necessary at 10.28pm. Despite the theatrics, we Conservatives have set a budget that is good for the district, and affordable for our residents.
• See also the website for the West Berkshire Conservatives.
Lee Dillon (Lib Dem Group Leader)
During the debate on the revenue budget last night last, my party tabled 21 amendments to the budget, from reducing green bins charges to freezing adult social increases. Members prepared for the budget meeting by meeting with officers, working through ideas and then getting formal sign off form the Section 151 Officer (In charge of the money) We also agreed to follow rules on limiting the speaking time so more people could speak. At no point during the debate were these speaking times exceeded.
After our motion was proposed and the Leader of Council had gave us a lecture on how we should have put amendments in earlier (again we were following pre agreed rules with the Head of Finance) a vote was taken to move to a vote with the conservative voting to stop debate. A this time only two of the six shadow portfolio holders had spoken and no back benchers. Despite requests to limit the speaking time of all members they choose to stop any more debate on our amendment.
As they would not give us the democratic right of debating our amendment we took the difficult decision to leave the chamber. To leave a meeting is a very last resort (Never done it in my 17 years as a Councillor) but we felt that we had no other option of showing residents how important it is that Opposition voices have an opportunity to be heard. I am pleased that our Green Colleagues also felt as strongly. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to point out what we supported in their proposals, along with some good ideas in the Conservative budget that we would have added our support to as well if we given the chance.
• See also the website for the West Berkshire Lib Dems.
Carolyne Culver (Green Group Leader)
Green Party councillors walked out of last night’s council’s annual budget meeting in solidarity with the Opposition Liberal Democrats because of the Conservatives’ attempts to shut down democratic debate. Once again our respective budget amendments were lumped together rather than considered individually, making it easier for the Conservatives to find an excuse to oppose them en bloc. Shortly after debate began on the Liberal Democrats’ amendments to the revenue budget a Conservative requested that debate end and we move to a vote. Yet earlier the Conservatives had been happy to waste time queuing up to highlight all the great projects that their own wards will benefit from.
West Berkshire Council is an elective dictatorship. The only way to end this is to elect parties that will abandon the ridiculous Executive system and use the more democratic committee system.”
The Leader of the Council had the cheek to say these budget proposals could have been made earlier in the year. But we aren’t included in the Conservatives’ discussions with officers when the budget is drawn up – we only get to amend it at the annual meeting. Most motions and petitions during the year get delegated to secretive committees that we aren’t allowed to talk about, or judgement is passed down by a member of the Conservative Executive. Our Universal Basic Income motion in December was condemned by the Leader of the Council as divisive because all three parties didn’t agree on the topic. In February she complained about members of the public asking questions. Is this a democracy or a dictatorship? She should abandon her autocratic style of leadership.”
• See also the website for the West Berkshire Greens.