Yesterday’s Shropshire Council meeting was quite lively at times. The subject matter was duller than dust – the council’s finances. But it did get a bit hot under the collar, with raised voices, swearing and gasps of incredulity. Conservatives even voted against Conservative motions.
Councillors squabbled over whether to raise the pay of the political leaders and eventually agreed not to do so – for now.
Councillors did agree a £209m net budget for next year and to raise council tax by 5.99%. With police, fire and Ludlow Town Council also making increases, the overall council tax bill in Ludlow will increase by 6.7%.
I don’t know which part of the council meeting was most bizarre. Swearing, even lightweight words, is not allowed but passions were running high. A Conservative seconding the Conservative leader’s motion on allowances made clear he didn’t agree with it. The Labour leader said he was hearing about councillors complaining that rural areas needed a better deal on youth funding. There is, he said, no deprivation in rural areas. That comment was met with howls of derision from Tory and Lib Dem ranks.
The council agreed to set higher rates of council tax. Total bills in Ludlow town will go up from £1,677 to £1,788 for a Band D property. The charge has four components. Shropshire Council’s share council tax is going up by 5.99%. This is made up of 2.99% for general funds and 3% for adult social care. The precepts for Ludlow Town Council, police and fire bring the overall increase to 6.7%. Total council tax bills will have increased by 14.1% since 2011/12.From 1 April, many low income people and families in Shropshire will have to pay 20% of their council tax bill for the first time as Shropshire Council “shares the burden” of financing public services with the county’s poorest.
Not everyone was happy with the council tax increase. A small number of Conservatives voted against saying it was too high. But most Conservatives and Labour voted in favour. Lib Dems abstained. The overall voting was 50 members for the rise, 4 against and 12 abstentions.
The debate over whether to increase members’ allowances for some members and reduce it for others was extraordinary. The report recommending the changes was produced by an Independent Remuneration Panel comprised of four non-councillors.
In introducing the recommendation to accept the report, Peter Nutting instead rubbished it. He said that the panel had not listened to him. He had never asked for a wage rise for the leader of the council and he didn’t want the pay of scrutiny chairs cut “because they would do more in future”. He wanted to raise the basic allowance paid to all councillors to £12,000 from £11,400 and link it to either inflation or local government pay increases or inflation.
Councillor Nutting had produced a motion recommending that the current allowances be retained and another review is conducted. Councillors will also be asked to record the work they do as part of the evidence. This motion had obviously been hurriedly put together as the Conservative councillor seconding it said he didn’t really support it. Neither did some other Tories. It was a pretty scruffy debate with arguments for and against increases. I said that a 17% increase for some councillors could not be justified when staff were getting 2% and council tax was going up by 6%. Several members argued that an independent report should be respected and implemented.
In the end, the leader got his way but without the support of many members of his party. Thirty-nine voted councillors voted in favour of a new review, 20 against and 6 abstained.
This was quite encouraging. The Conservative group is usually highly disciplined and votes the way the leader tells it to. Occasionally, members have been missing from the council chamber during a vote to avoid voting against their beliefs. But Peter Nutting was elected leader of the council without the full support of the Conservative group, one resigning the Tory whip. Since Nutting’s election as leader, the Tories have been less disciplined.
I found the breaking of ranks yesterday refreshing. I think every councillor’s duty should be to their constituents first and any party allegiance second.
The following is an update after questions here and elsewhere on why the Lib Dems abstained on council tax.
Why we Lib Dems abstained
The reason that the Lib Dems abstained on the council tax vote is similar to the reason that the Labour group voted in favour. The council has a legal duty to set a balanced budget by March 11 every year. If we don’t, we end up in the position that Northamptonshire County Council is now in.
During the debate, both Lib Dems and Labour pointed out that the council wouldn’t be in this mess and have to raise council tax so much if not for two factors. The first is that the council has been badly managed by the Conservatives, particularly in its first few years. Secondly, the national Conservative party is failing to fund local services and adult social care adequately.
Alan Mosley, the leader of the Labour group, said the council tax rise was a “fait accompli” and his group had no choice but to vote for it. We Lib Dems balked at the idea of voting for a council tax rise that is a result of Tory mismanagement.
We could not have defeated the Tories despite two of their members voting against the tax rise. Imagine for a moment that we could have voted the motion down. Then the budget would not be balanced and we would have to nominate services to be cut. The Tories are already doing enough of that without us joining in.
Also, we planned to modify the budget, which was next on the agenda, to put more money towards environmental improvements. That could not be done if the budget was to be cut. Our amendment on the budget was defeated by the Tories. I will write more on that later.
So, the reason we abstained was that we had a gun to a head over the budget but could not stomach voting to finance Tory mismanagement.