Two leading Conservatives made the case for a council tax freeze at the annual budget meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council today (Thursday 26 February).
Councillor Ann Norman paid tribute to Green council leader Jason Kitcat and wished him well after he steps down in May.
She said: “Judging by (Green Party leader) Natalie Bennett’s recent media performance, I think there may be a vacancy at the top before too long which you might be interested in, Jason.”
Councillor Norman said: “It will come as no surprise to colleagues in the chamber tonight that the Conservative group is proposing a council tax freeze for 2015-16.
“We have argued consistently for the last four years that the administration should take advantage of the government’s freeze grant funding to deliver what we believe residents overwhelmingly want.
“Council tax rises above the rate of inflation are regressive. They don’t hit people who can afford to pay more. They hit those on the margins.
“In other words, those residents who are just above the threshold for qualifying for the council tax reduction scheme and those residents on fixed incomes, many of whom are pensioners.
“That, of course, has even greater importance now than previous years because the rate of inflation is so low – 0.3 per cent last month and expected to fall even further during the year.
“So tonight the Labour Party is proposing a council tax rise of almost seven times the rate of inflation and the Green Party a staggering 20 times.
“When most other household bills are falling, this is quite simply unjustifiable.
“This is the reason why we are proposing our council tax freeze tonight and why we will be opposing the increases put forward by the Green and Labour parties.
“In addition to freezing the council tax, our other amendments reflect the priorities that we have as a group – priorities that will define the work of a Conservative administration post-May.
“We would like to see the council being much bolder in its engagement with the city’s excellent not-for-profit sector.
“In this budget, we have made it quite clear that, in particular, youth services, children’s centre services and learning disability services could all benefit from greater community and voluntary sector involvement.
“We have confidence in them to deliver more for less.”
She said that one Conservative amendment sought to protect funding for three voluntary groups which work with some of Brighton and Hove’s most vulnerable young people – Allsorts, Extratime and the BME Young People’s Project.
Another amendment sought to offer greater protection to funding for the hugely valuable service that provides respite and short breaks for disabled children and their families.
Councillor Norman said: “We, and probably the vast majority of the city’s long-suffering residents, believe that the Cityclean refuse and recycling service desperately needs modernisation and reform.
“We simply cannot understand why the excellent service redesign proposals put forward by officers have been rejected in their entirety in the administration’s budget.
“We will reinstate these lock, stock and barrel.
“We have been consistent in seeking an end to the city’s ‘rip-off parking’ reputation and so, as in previous years, we are seeking support from Labour to freeze the cost of parking permits for traders and visitors and also to freeze charges at the council’s car parks.
“On the back of the massive 70 per cent increases in the cost of permits for traders and businesses that were forced through three years ago by the Greens and Labour, we think that these further increases are a completely unjustified attack on our local trades people.
“This is nothing less than an extra tax on local business.
“Some of our other proposals … include keeping vital public toilets open, continued funding for planting new trees, particularly our unique national elm collection, saving the city’s historic mayoralty and additional funding to support the annual Pride Community Parade.
“These latter two epitomise what this city is all about and make a massive contribution to the city’s economy and reputation, not to mention the community and voluntary sector.
“These proposals are all fully costed and paid for by sensible and deliverable savings, for example, reducing senior management costs including a restructuring in the assistant chief executive’s department, reducing spending on communications, HR and travellers and our perennial favourite – taxpayer-funded trade union officials.
“In times of austerity, residents simply will not understand why their council tax continues to be spent in this way.
“We also make no bones about using the £1.2 million of one-off funding that the administration is proposing to use on their referendum to buy some breathing space and enable services and management to be properly redesigned and restructured.
“This is exactly what reserves should be used for.
“In conclusion, I believe our common sense proposals offer the best balance between affordability for residents and preserving, and indeed improving, some of the frontline services they rely upon.
“I urge all members to support them tonight.”
Conservative opposition group leader Councillor Geoffrey Theobald said: “I was heartened to read the comments of Councillor (Christina) Summers in the Brighton and Hove Independent this week that: ‘The budget process, in my view, is an utter nonsense and will remain so until a complete reformation of the council’s structure, governance, and management takes place.’
“We have been saying this for four years.
“Having read that statement I then look at page 18 (of the agenda for the meeting) – the Savings and Value for Money section.
“It says: ‘Value for money continues to be a key focus for the authority alongside commissioning and recommissioning services, exploring alternative delivery options and working with partners to improve services, manage demands or reduce costs.’
“That reads like a work of fiction and surely is not endorsed by the Green councillors and Councillor (Warren) Morgan judging by his voting on the Health and Wellbeing Board and P&R (Policy and Resources Committee).
“Commissioning, working with the voluntary sector and partnerships is precisely what has not been happening over the last four years and is why our costs remain high compared to comparable authorities.
“I’m afraid that commissioning, which we wholeheartedly support, ground to a halt when this was abandoned, when they took office, by this Green administration, with support from the Labour Party.
“Council officers are now having to reinvent the wheel, having wasted four years, because there is no political direction.
“We have regularly pointed out, for example, that our learning disability services are the most expensive in the country, yet it was only a couple of weeks ago that action was finally taken to address this on the back of a damning independent review.
“It is astonishing that the council has only just started looking at the possibility of sharing our central service functions with other councils.
“And the council is still inexplicably reluctant to put its trust in the city’s excellent community and voluntary sector.
“We have all known about the funding situation for at least four years now, following Labour’s woeful mismanagement of the economy, and we know it’s not going to change whoever wins the election in May.
“Yet all this administration does is sit there moaning on the sidelines instead of getting on and doing something positive about it.
“Councillor Morgan will no doubt stand up in a minute and tell us exactly how many days, hours and minutes it is until he sweeps to power.
“And in the very same breath give us his usual lecture about how we must all rise above ‘petty party politics’ and say how irresponsible we and the Greens are for not compromising our positions to agree a budget.
“Well how about you making a compromise, Councillor Morgan, and vote for a freeze budget as so many of your fellow Labour councils up and down the country continue to do?”
As he ran out of time he was trying to add: “How can you continue to justify turning down the government’s £1.2 million council tax freeze grant for the sake of an extra £900,000?”
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