Budget day at Fenland Council where we witnessed what looked like the latter stages of the battle for control of the ruling Tory group
- Credit: Archant
The unprecedented spectacle of the leader and three cabinet colleagues – including the portfolio holder for finance – abstaining on the budget vote for 2019/20 provided tangible evidence of the split within Conservative controlled Fenland District Council.
Councillors on Thursday witnessed a stumbling defence of a proposed 1.9 per cent increase by finance portfolio holder Ann Hay ahead of a speech by ‘leader in waiting’ Councillor Chris Boden that tore into her budget strategy.
Cllr Boden, who said afterwards that he had never intended to speak in the debate, rose to support a zero rise after he explained how the council had for many years under estimated its financial strength.
Cllr Hay put two options to the council – a 1.9 per cent rise favoured by cabinet and a zero rise that had been voted on at a private gathering of all Tory councillors and which normally would have carried the day.
At one stage officers had even suggested 2019 would be a good time to add 3 per cent to the council tax but even the cabinet back peddled on that proposition.
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Cllr Hay said: “I personally believe we could be doing this council a disservice by going for no increase”
She said there were risks ahead including income from the new homes bonus and the fairer funding review going on nationally.
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“As it is any administration after May (after the four yearly elections) will face the prospect of going through a second comprehensive spending review to achieve a balanced budget for the following year,” she said.
Councillor Steve Tierney offered “with respect” what he termed “a different view” pointing out that as a member of the scrutiny committee he had been become aware of the council enjoying quite high under spends that only came to light once the budget had been set.
He argued “there is no need for an increase” and reminded colleagues that in most instances he always went for a zero rise if possible.
“We are not here to do the easy thing, we are here to do the right thing,” he said. “We have made a clear case through good financial management where we can take a little bit of a gamble and freeze council tax.”
Cllr Boden, widely tipped to be voted in as leader should Tories retain control after the May election, reminded councillors that a two per cent rise would cost taxpayers overall £150,000.
“However we have been asking for increases for quite a number of years at a time when year on year we have been showing a surplus, showing more money than ever, every year,” he said.
Cllr Boden pointed out that for five years the council had ended with a £800,000 surplus or thereabouts despite predicting a much lower sum and he found that “astonishing”.
He disagreed with Cllr Hay about a comprehensive spending review and suggested the council should be constantly reviewing its spending as a matter of course and “looking not only at cutting things but the way we transform things for our council tax payers”.
He felt there was a systemic failure within the finance department about projecting overspends.
“I am not accusing anyone of doing anything wrong – but there has been a culture of ultra caution in this council,” he said.
The council needed to “get control of its finances” and not make decisions on spending on what he called a “false premise”.
Cllr Boden said he did not expect the council would need to find the extra for this year – as was suggested – from reserves and overall felt the council has “enormous scope for making additional savings”.
Councillor Will Sutton, who has not been selected by the Conservatives to stand in May’s election, said there was some merit in going for Cllr Hay’s 1.9pc rise and some merit in going for 2.9pc. The ‘projected black hole’ hinted at in future years meant the council “should be careful”.
He also felt Fenland’s council tax remained unfairly high when compared to neighbouring West Norfolk. He had found houses of a similar nature locally where those in neighbouring Norfolk paid, in some instances, much less than those in Cambridgeshire.
This, he said, was “unexplainable and indefensible”.
Finance director Kamal Mehta’s report offered two options of a zero rise or 1.97pc but he had also reported earlier that if the council wanted to go for 3 per cent “this was the year to do it”.
In a recorded vote the majority of councillors – with the exception of those who abstained – opted for the zero rise.