Last night we took more than 10% - £12.6 MILLION out of the council's budget. That followed on the previous year’s cuts of £19 million (according to last year’s Conservative press release), so decisions were always going to be painful.
We might have expected some unpalatable decisions and the opposition groups lining up to attack our budget. That’s what happened last year with a budget which was described as ‘cutting everything but the grass’.
Instead I woke up this morning to hear that according to BBC Berkshire that we, and Labour-controlled Slough had frozen council tax, protected front line services through back office savings and made ‘the usual’ increases in other fees. What a contrast to the Conservative-run councils that surround us.
In fact I was shocked that the most contentious issue of the debate appeared to be a disagreement between the two smallest parties about whether or not an extra dog warden would solve the issue of dog fouling*.
So what is the Labour difference?
- The Conservatives believe that ‘Conservative policies are working’ – tell that to library users in Conservative-run Oxfordshire, elderly people in West Berkshire, or young people in Bracknell (and don’t get me started on Wokingham). The whole group spent their speeches talking about what dull accountants like me think of as the ‘top half’ of the budget – the income. How pleased they were that council tax was being frozen and that purely based on that they would support our budget. Well yes, your income matters but it also matters what you do with the money. Last year’s Conservative budget and the Conservative budgets from around the ‘Royal County’ and elsewhere show that if you just look at the top half the kind of decisions you end up with - Labour in contrast has agonised about each and every cost and saving - working together as a cabinet to protect services.
The Libdems showed what they like to think of as ‘flexibility’ and voted with ‘any party’ that would give them a small item off their wish list, in this case oddly enough a key request was a reversal of their own previous year cut in the graffiti team! I think it’s clear that the Libdems are increasingly an irrelevance in Reading and hardly worth the effort of voting for, if you want a champion for your local area or a real say in how decisions are taken it's got to be Labour.
- The Greens proposed we increased council tax by approximately £45 for the average household only to hand over about £30 of it over to Eric Pickles for no benefit. They had no particular proposal of what to do with the remaining cash, which would be less than £700,000 when we were saving £12,600,000. This is gesture politics at its most pointless made more problematic by comments made before the meeting so misleading that the non-partisan Director of Education and Children’s services took the unusual step of writing an open letter to him correcting his factual accuracy. The residents of Park ward deserve better than this.
What about Labour’s approach? While we have made painful decisions, let’s face it the redundancies in valued, hard working and truly committed top managers were were opposed at different points by all the other parties. Our budget was virtually a ‘no news’ story and voted for by almost every councillor.
We put Reading’s residents first, not the dictates of an ideologically driven, incompetent Conservative/Liberal Democrat government or the gesture politics of ‘resistance’ that would cost residents.
Only Labour is standing up for Reading, keep our promises (remember the Green bin tax?) and put the needs of our whole community before politics.
Last night I have to say I was proud to be a Labour councillor and more convinced than ever that we need more of us.
Yes dog fouling matters and we are acting on it but in the context of a budget where £12.6 million has to be taken out it felt odd to say the least.