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Do Council Budget Awaydays Benefit Residents?

March 11, 2014 by  

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head_in_the_sandThe Council Members’ “Budget Away Days” held in November and January, which cost the best part of nearly £2,000 (and over the last 3 years £5000), reversed The Conservative Cabinet recommendations to Full Council NOT to increase Parking Charges.

This is all at a time when the BBC reported this week that “The biggest increase in Council Taxes will occur in the South East outside London, where average council tax is set to go up by 0.8%,” but the increase at Rochford District Council was nearly 5%.  This is made up of 1.89% Council Tax plus Car Parking Charges of the equivalent of 3% Council tax making 4.89% overall.

With the “Tory Whip” being applied one wonders why it was necessary to have any of the Away Days at all because the decision to charge for Saturday Afternoons and increase Parking Charges by 25% must have already been taken in private group meetings.  There certainly was no discussion or “exchange of ideas or views” at the Away Day about the recommendations of Review Committee not to increase any Parking Charges or any explanation as to why the Cabinet had changed its mind.  Even at Full Council on 25 February this question was ignored despite having been put twice by Councillor John Mason to the Leader of the Council.  Not one Member of the Conservative Administration appeared to be able or willing to explain the about face.

Despite what Councillor Cutmore said on 25 February about Budget Away Days being “inclusive of All Members” this was a sham consultation because there was clearly nothing anyone, even rebel Conservatives, could do to change this decision so the almost £2,000 cost of the Way Days was an unacceptable waste of public money.

Here is what the Official Freedom of Information Request of the Council reported.

Thank you for your request for information which has been dealt with under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”

 “With regard to financial away days, we hold two of these per financial year.”

 “The costs for the last 3 years were 2011/12 = £1,869.55    2012/13 = £1,332.67   2013/14 = £1,794.00”

“The Away days are not Financial Committee meetings.  All Members and the Senior Management Team of the Council are invited to the Away day in order to have the opportunity to consider the priorities and budgetary pressures for the forthcoming financial year in an informal environment which encourages the exchange of ideas.  It would be difficult to achieve this free exchange of views in a formal committee or Council setting.  With around 40-45 attendees, the Council Chamber is not a suitable venue.”

Our experience is that it is not an occasion for exchange of views with non Conservative Members but a rehearsal to show ALL Councillors of how futile it will be to challenge the Tory Whip at Full Council.  Indeed the second Away Day was presented to Members not as an exchange of views but draft, fait accompli, Resolutions which would be put to Full Council on 28 January, some with fatal results to business in our District.

Whilst we were unsuccessful in generating any “exchange of views” on Car Parking Charges we did on Planning Fees , where  although it was stated forcefully “that this has already been decided”, your Independent Members did vigorously challenge the imposition of new Planning Pre-Application Charges to ordinary residents.  Furthermore the way forward with a Review of Public Toilets was simply incorrect and again the Independent Members had this changed.   That said, all these things could have been changed at Full Council, without the additional cost of Away Days.

As Independent Members we joined with a number of Tories at the Away Day to affirm that the Flood Forum needed no NEW Budget as a previous unspent budget could be utilised without subsidising landowners and other responsible authorities.

However our view remains that the expense of these meetings is unjustified.  The Conservative Whip effectively means a block vote for the Council Leader to impose his will.  It is a sad fact that even those Conservatives who disagree with the decisions made by their party are not allowed to express their view by voting in residents’ interests.  Abstaining is NOT enough.

All discussion and debate decision making should be done in the Council Chamber with residents interests at the heart of it and not in closed political meetings with party interests paramount.  There is no need for a Whip if proposals are truly in line with the wishes of residents and ALL Councillors are allowed to represent residents rather than tow the political line with the Whip as dictated by a single Leader. 

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