Yesterday, rescheduled at short notice, Cornwall Council held a long meeting to discuss the Conservative-led administration’s “emergency” budget. (I posted our group’s four amendments here a few days ago, and it won’t surprise you to learn that the Council’s ruling coalition were able to summon enough votes to ensure that none of them were passed. There was also a further amendment on staffing put forward by the Mebyon Kernow group which we supported but which the administration managed to defeat by a single vote.)
It was a disappointing day in a number of respects, and the tone was set by the Leader’s opening speech in which he made a series of lazy party political statements and decided to single out Doris Ansari and me for personal criticism before we’d even taken part in the debate. The end result of yesterday’s deliberations is an unnecessarily savage set of cuts which will do nothing but damage to our rural communities, the morale of the Council’s hard-working staff and – most importantly – those who depend on Cornwall Council in areas like Adult Social Care.
Our amendments tried to protect funding for Adult Social Care, Libraries and Leisure Services from within the budget constraints imposed by the Coalition Government but the administration showed no willingness to listen. In fact, the whole democratic process seemed to be something of an irritation to them. The Deputy Leader (who assured us he is “good with numbers”) questioned the impertinence of the opposition groups for coming forward with other ideas. His message seemed to be “Do as we tell you – we know best”. In addition we asked for recorded votes on these amendments so that Councillors would have nowhere to hide when asked to justify their decisions, but these requests were met with groans from the administration’s benches – democratic accountability is apparently a real pain for them.
I didn’t form the impression that there was much understanding of this budget from those who were voting for it. The Leader’s rhetoric was largely a rehash of every statement the Council’s Chief Executive has made in recent months (especially the stuff about not acting like a glorified District Council) and it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the administration has been led unthinking into the unknown.
And there lies the other great disappointment: the fundamental lack of detail in the budget. This didn’t stop the administration’s backbenchers taking the plunge, however. What many of them failed to understand was that, as elected representatives, they should all have an understanding of what exactly it was that they’d agreed to – it will be no use denying all knowledge when leisure facilities start to close and mobile library services have been withdrawn from remote communities.
The other question that no one was able to give an adequate answer to was, why the rush? I understand the Chief Executive’s logic behind tackling the issue early (even if I don’t share it) but we are just a matter of days away from the government setting out the local government grant position. It would surely have been more sensible to await this information before wielding the axe. Instead Cornwall Council has already played all of its cards and made the government’s job easy. A daft and inexplicable tactic.
In spite of all the damage inflicted by the administration yesterday, Cornwall Council’s staff will still manage to work miracles within the constraints imposed. But questions must now be asked of the Independent group. Many of them were bold enough to think for themselves yesterday and not simply take on trust what they were told by the people on the top floor at County Hall, but how much longer will the rest of them prop up an administration which already seems to have forgotten who it is supposed to be working for?