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Council Tax up 3.9% as budget approved – Labour’s alternative fails to impress Councillors or Officers

NOTE: This content is old - Published: Thursday, Feb 22nd, 2018.

A council tax increase, cuts to school music services and plans to charge disabled people for parking are all part of a controversial budget that has been passed after a debate that saw an alternative Labour plan deemed ‘irresponsible, dangerous and foolish’.

Those attending the meeting were serenaded by a group of Wrexham musicians (above pic and below video) looking to stop the proposed music service cut, however unlike other meetings the public gallery was comparatively empty and some Councillors we spoke to said their inboxes had been light of complaints.

The Council’s Budget was presented by Council Leader Mark Pritchard, who gave more time to detailing the lengths of consultation that has taken place and opportunities Councillors and others have had to input, than the facts and figures inside the document, adding: “The Difficult Decisions consultation received 3797 responses, for which we are extremely grateful, and helped us in what was difficult process to get to where we are.”

Cllr Pritchard called the budget ‘safe’ several times, with his final summary calling it ‘safe, balanced and sustainable’

Councillor David A Bithell said he was ‘quite happy’ to second the budget, stating: “A rigorous process has been undertaken, it is a safe budget going forward into new financial year.”

Various Conservative and Independent grouped councillors spoke in support of the budget, before the Labour Group put forward their alternative budget and the arguments really began.

Leader of the Labour group, Cllr Dana Davies outlined their proposals first unveiled a week ago, branding it an ‘enhancement’ to the existing budget rather than a wholesale change – with it noted it affected just 3.6% of the total budget.

A recorded vote was called for on the alternative budget, with Labour and Conservative councillors rising to agree with that proposal.

Cllr Pritchard was champing at the bit to respond to the Labour proposal, and unleashed a verbal disassembly of the funding basis of the plans branding Cllr Davies “foolish, irresponsible and dangerous” for even bringing the plan forward – the crux being if Labour’s plans were using council reserves, taking money from children’s services or a juggle of both involving the Minimum Revenue Provision policy.

Councillors were provided with two budget documents deep in their agenda packs, which appeared to be the basis for the argument as it displayed £800k money allocated to children’s services being removed in the alternative budget. This was then allocated as a unavoidable commitment, making it eligible for reserves to be used to cover it.

With that covered off, the savings made via the Minimum Revenue Provision was then to be used to cover Labour’s proposed savings – however there appeared to be no clarity for many in the chamber on how that would all work, nor how that position could be maintained in the future.

For many even the mention of using reserves in any manner at all raised hackles.

Cllr Pritchard first ‘dealt with the political element’, calling Labour ‘hypocritical’ for suggesting cutting the numbers of Executive Board members, pointing out that when they were in power they did not cut their 10 members.

In what was to become a well used phrase by the end of the meeting a point of order was called by Cllr Davies to say that although Labour had ten, there were only seven paid roles at that time and she thought Cllr Pritchard was ‘misinforming the public’.

That view was rejected by Cllr Pritchard who told Cllr Davies: “You had every chance to reduce and didn’t.”

Thundering on to the next point, Cllr Pritchard said: “I never thought I would sit in the chamber when an opposition leader would move to take £800,000 from children services.

“What you’ve said is irresponsible, foolish and dangerous, taking chances with children’s services. A reduction in budget would leave vulnerable children of Wrexham unprotected

“I say what you’re proposing is foolish, irresponsible and dangerous. I would challenge what advice you have taken, I won’t allow this to happen on my watch when vulnerable kids are put at risk.”

Cllr Pritchard enquired if Cllr Davies had met with council officers to discuss the risk of her plans, point out that he had and they ‘made it clear they would put the Authority at risk’.

In a somewhat unusual twist to the proceedings Cllr Pritchard invited council officers to speak on that topic to in effect back up what he had said.

One officer told the meeting they had “very real concerns at proposed reduction” adding the plans “would put the Council at risk of not being able to meet statutory duties for vulnerable children”.

Another referred to a new risk of using council reserves, adding that currently Wrexham Council’s reserves run at 4.6% against an advised 5% and if the alternative budget plan was taking forward that would drop to 4.1%.

That position was defined as ‘not illegal’, but it was clearly pointed out that drawing reserves in the proposed manner was frowned upon as well as being ‘a major change in strategy’.

Cllr Davies said to call her ‘irresponsible’ was strong stuff, and referred back to a webcast meeting over Children’s Services and the extra £800k required in that budget.

She added that meeting was told the increased costs was due to a ‘spike’ and a ‘handful of expensive placements’ due to court ordered spot purchasing of accommodation services, firmly saying: “The Alternative budget is not about taking money from Children’s Services, that overspend is dealt with in the reserves policy.”

There was a slight pause in hostilities as the Mayor moved the debate forward inviting others to speak.

Cllr Carrie Harper gave Plaid Cymru’s view, pointing out they were the ones who had pushed for the round of special Scrutiny meetings before Christmas. Cllr Harper said with the ‘background of austerity’ there was “no surprise councils are facing unpalatable decisions, we feel some cuts are unacceptable”, and thus were supporting the Labour alternative budget.

Cllr Harper also added that it was their understanding the alternative budget did not mean there would be any cuts to children’s services.

Cllr Alun Jenkins reiterated his long voiced opinions over not taking any pride in having low council tax in Wrexham, preferring higher council tax to save services.

The reference to officer advice was reiterated by Cllr Kelly, who said of the looking after vulnerable children: “To think this is a one off pressure, to think we could fund with reserves this year and won’t have pressure next year, it is a big danger.”

The relevant Lead Member, Cllr Bill Baldwin also focused in on the children’s services element of the Labour plan saying he was ‘deeply concerned’ adding he thought if the alternative was accepted he had “no doubt vulnerable children would be at more risk”.

Cllr Andrew Atkinson agreed Labour’s plan was ‘dangerous’, adding he thought it ‘avoids taking tough decisions and raids reserves’.

Cllr Joan Lowe also said she ‘couldn’t support taking money from reserves’, giving her experience of sitting on the Foster Panel and therefore had first hand experience of seeing ‘very sad cases’ of children locally, “To me taking money from reserves would be very very short sighted. As parents and grandparents, just remember your responsibility as corporate parents to the vulnerable in this county borough.”

With councillors speaking along well defined party or grouping lines Cllr Derek Wright gave his colleagues a warning from history. Cllr Wright commended the administration for the budget, but added he did not feel it was right for the people of Wrexham at this time.

Citing his own voting record over Plas Madoc he warned independently elected councillors to not “do as I did and make the same mistakes, I was persuaded to vote against the views of the people by group leaders and their political ambitions’, with ominous caution to those in the chamber, ‘the people will never forget’ urging presumably independent councillors ‘vote for your community and not groups you have aligned yourself to’.

More councillors spoke along party and group lines, some reading out prepared statements and others in what appeared to be almost choreographed topic based points. No prepared statements appear to have been released before or after the meeting from those who had them.

Councillor Malcolm King was invited by the Mayor to speak several times, however Cllr King himself declined until a time suited himself. This self-management of the meeting saw a few shaken heads, and by the fifth or sixth time outright tutting, booing and heckling of Cllr King – and the Mayor who had allowed the situation to develop.

When he finally deemed the meeting ready for his views, Cllr King rose and said: “I don’t think I can remember such anxiety about me speaking, I am grateful you are so keen to hear me speak.”

“I am extremely disappointed members appear to have chosen to misunderstand the financial basis for the Labour Group’s amendment” saying he thought Cllr Davies had explained things ‘very well’.

Cllr King directed his comments almost entirely to Cllr Pritchard sat around two metres away, saying: “It does not propose taking money from reserves to fund proposals, it says children’s services expenditure is what should be taken out of reserves.”

Taking offence, he added: “On a personal level having managed budget for many years I would never an amendment that proposed taking ongoing expenditure out of reserves” citing the Minimum Revenue Provision policy change that enabled £1.7m to be found.

At this point Cllr Pritchard called a point of order, saying Cllr King had misrepresented what was said on the Minimum Revenue Provision at a previous meeting.

He went on to expand from an initial complaint on process of the meeting, adding: “You are standing up and saying you are not taking it from the reserves, you are. You are taking money away from children’s services and out of reserves.”

Cllr Pritchard also picked up on the future demand of children’s services, noting that Cllr King had previously referred to large future demand as a ‘tsunami’, and therefore point out it was not a one off cost able to be covered by reserves rather an ongoing budget demand.

Cllr Pritchard ended by asking if the Labour Group was “misleading the chamber, or you don’t understand your own amendment”.

Another point of order was called by Cllr Davies who referred back to the meeting in December where Childrens Services, the unexpected budget demand, and the Minimum Revenue Provision was all debated.

“It was explained to us that it was a handful of expensive placements that had caused the spike.” Cllr Davies added that the account she was referencing was on a webcast recording, and invited the Council Leader to spool through to watch. Cllr Pritchard replied he already had, twice.

A baffled Cllr Davies said to Cllr Pritchard: “I don’t understand what you don’t understand then”.

Cllr King joined in, telling Cllr Pritchard: “I don’t understand what you don’t understand either” – pointing out that he had ‘spent nearly 30 years trying to change the position for vulnerable children, well before anyone else here was doing that’ adding to suggest he would do anything to undermine that work was a ‘considerable insult’.

Cllr King doubled down, telling Cllr Pritchard he felt he was “pretending you’ve not read it properly” – adding that he hopes it has been “made it clear this is not out of reserves and this is much needed.”

Cllr Phil Wynn was next to speak, who asked Labour to withdraw their proposed alternative budget saying: “What they are proposing tonight is to draw down reserves to allow money to be temporarily put into services.

Pointing out £13m of further cuts this year he added, “It might make a few people feel good and get a few pats on backs, but it is temporary solution.”

A simmering Cllr King made another point of order to enquire if the children’s service budget was to be permanently increased, and if so asked when the decision was made and who made it.

A few nods around the room soon turned to exasperation when he added: “It does not seem to have gone through Executive Board, or is that something you have all decided together as mates?”

That comment prompted yet another point of order to be called, some looking to clamp down on personal comments from all sides, but the winning point of order was from the Council Leader.

Cllr Pritchard did not respond to the jibe directly, preferring to invite officers back to the table to help fix any ‘lack of understanding in the alternative budget’ and to confirm if any money was to be coming from reserves adding it was ‘crystal clear to me it is coming from the reserves’.

Cllr Davies made a point of order to ask if that was a valid point of order, the Mayor did not have time to answer with Cllr Pritchard himself saying ‘yes’.

The finance officer explained his understanding was in effect the alternative budget plan was to draw £820k out of reserves to fund children’s services. He went on to explain that social care budgets would likely have holes in the future, and that reserves can only be used once and therefore proposals would buy twelve months of time.

The relevant officer for children’s services also spoke to confirm the increase in the department was ‘not a one off expenditure’ and the money referenced in the December meeting was not a one year fix

With the budget debate heading past the two hour point, Cllr David A Bithell spoke on transport proposals in the alternative budget. Labour had proposed creating a new dedicated Officer role in Wrexham Council to go after grants and various other money pots to enable better bus and other transport investment.

Cllr Bithell methodically explained why he felt ‘Councillor Davies has not done her homework’, pointing out £1m of transport grants had been secured in the last 12 months by the council. Another £25m pot of cash was referenced, Labour saying the new Officer would help get some of that cash, however Cllr Bithell pointed out that money is automatically allocated via a formula.

Cllr Bithell said he was ‘flabbergasted’ to hear Labour’s plans to contribute to local bus services, pointing to 2014 when Labour led Wrexham Council and oversaw ‘£495,000 removed from supported public transport services’, adding ‘how ironic now they want to put the money back’.

Other elements of the budget were challenged by Cllr Bithell, with reference to his own ‘safe budget’ that he was seconding, finishing up by saying: “No group in this council has voted to fund services from reserves since 1996.

“I think personally the Labour Group want to push us over the cliff edge. Some will say it is reckless, I say it is irresponsible.”

Cllr Bithell’s speech prompted yet more points of order over which councillor gets the final say in any debate, with the Labour group adamant they heard Cllr Pritchard pass that right to Cllr Bithell.

The Mayor disagreed, and so Cllr Pritchard wrapped up the debate ahead of the vote reiterating his comments over the budget being ‘safe’.

A recorded vote was held – meaning every councillor said out loud whether they were for or against the Labour Groups amendment – seeing 16 come out in support, 30 against and one Councillor abstaining.

The full per-councillor vote breakdown is included in our live tweets below.

A second vote took place on the initial budget proposal, which was passed with 30 in favour, 16 against and 1 abstaining – the reverse result to the amendment.

You can view our live tweets from the meeting below, with the earliest at the bottom and latest at the top, giving more documentation on Councillors who spoke – of course you can watch the webcast of the meeting here on the Council website for around 5-6 months from today.

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