Cambs Budget 2014 – The Opposition Responds

10:09 Wednesday 19th February 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[A]NDIE HARPER: Last night councillors on Cambridgeshire County Council agreed their budget, as they decided how to cut £37 million over the next couple of years. Services facing cuts included winter road gritting, concessionary fares on park and ride buses, and of course, care. The budget was approved by 33 votes to 20, but Labour decided to abstain. I’m joined now by the Leader of the Labour party on Cambridgeshire County Council, Paul Sales. Paul, good morning.
PAUL SALES: Good morning Andie. How are you?
ANDIE HARPER: Yes, good thank you. So how are you after what was obviously a long day?
PAUL SALES: In common with the other councillors, I should think we’re all a bit tired this morning. The meeting was all day, and was hard work.
ANDIE HARPER: Now why did Labour abstain? So was it trying to have the best of both worlds?

PAUL SALES: Oh no no. The reason for that is that there is a legal requirement for the County to set a balanced budget. That’s the first thing. Secondly, the Tory group are a minority administration, and they had people missing. And the opposition groups decided with the exception of the Independents to vote against. And myself and the Labour group were very concerned that the budget would fall. In the end it didn’t. The majority was fairly comfortable, but we didn’t know that at the time. So we abstained on the budget, to make sure that a budget was set, because the budget is effectively a vote of confidence in the administration. If it had fallen, we’d have been in the position that Norfolk are in, where they had to .. where the Opposition parties had to accept responsibility and couldn’t do it.
ANDIE HARPER: So whilst you didn’t approve I should imagine with many of the decisions taken, you felt in practical terms the budget had to get through.
PAUL SALES: Well it was a technicality. It’s all very well saying you should disapprove of everything, but I thought that the Tories at the time we did the count, which was just before the vote, we thought the Tories had a majority of only two, and that was too close for us to take the risk. We were prepared. We were all set. We met at lunch time and agreed we would vote against if we could. But in the end it was too close for comfort.
ANDIE HARPER: Now we are told …
PAUL SALES: We can hold the balance of power you see.
ANDIE HARPER: Yes. of course. I appreciate that, and I also appreciate why you let it go through, because otherwise we’d have been in a state of chaos really.
PAUL SALES: Oh absolute disaster. You know can you imagine trying to get agreement between the Liberals, the Labour Party and UKIP on a budget?
ANDIE HARPER: So practicalities ..
PAUL SALES: Yes. Technicalities and practicalities.
ANDIE HARPER: .. took over. So let’s assume then that this has gone through. You obviously appreciate that there were need for cuts. Is your argument, would your argument have been, that they are in the wrong places?
PAUL SALES: Well the cuts are so swingeing, and I don’t think that there’s any right places for cuts of this magnitude. The County is going to lose 30% of its total budget over the next three or four years. And it’s difficult to know what to save in that context. If you lost 30% of your income over the next three years, not taking into account inflation, what would be left of your household accounts? Baked beans for you.
ANDIE HARPER: Exactly. Exactly. But you did accept the need for cuts, and you do say quite rightly that nobody wants to see cuts anywhere. But they were going to happen. It looks at first glance that once again the people at the bottom end of the ladder are those who are going to suffer the most.
PAUL SALES: Well that was exactly .. the theme of my opening speech was that it’s a tragedy, and I closed by saying that those hardest hit will be the poorest members of the community. And that’s absolutely true. And this is a tragedy. Across the board the cuts are immense, right across the board, especially in things like social care, residential care, home help hours. What have I got here? “Massive cuts planned for nursing, residential placements and home help hours. These cuts total £6.5 million quid.” That’s this year. That’s for the next year.
ANDIE HARPER: And they are the ones that are really going to hit hardest, even if .. you know .. they’re doing away with concessions on park and ride buses, and cutting back on gritting the road. They’re the sort of headline makers, but it’s this underlying, isn’t it?
PAUL SALES: The Conservative administration, minority administration, did listen to the complaints, and they came up with a package. They found another £1.5 million to offset the cuts. But that sort of tinkers with the edge. You can’t make cuts of this size without it impacting. And the public haven’t yet caught up with the fact, with the scale of these cuts you see. That’s the point.
ANDIE HARPER: If Labour were to be elected and find themselves in a majority the next time the Council elections come round, what could, what would you do differently? Or is it all down ultimately to central government?
PAUL SALES: It’s ultimately all down to central government. One of the difficulties in .. I mean it’s very easy for all the Opposition groups to say this is disgraceful, this is outrageous. But the amount of money is limited, and you have to provide a service, and you have to balance the budget. Failure to balance the budget is .. knowingly failing to balance the budget I think is a criminal offence now. I’m not dead sure about that. But in all honesty, with the budget limits that we’ve got, I don’t think a budget put together by the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats woud look a lot different. Mind you they do want to sell .. the Liberals do strangely want to sell (UNCLEAR-SPOKEN OVER) ..
PAUL SALES: And Shire Hall. Yes.
ANDIE HARPER: Would that not be the answer?
PAUL SALES: No. It’s not the answer, selling Shire Hall. Their proposal to sell Shire Hall didn’t include any costings for removing for instance the mainframe server computer which is in the basement, or finding other accommodation.
ANDIE HARPER: Where are we going to go from here Paul? Because as I mentioned at the outset, we’ve already seen over £100 million cut from the budget. Now this £37 million. Where are we going to end up as a county? Are we going to be looking after anybody?
PAUL SALES: Well I think that very very few people indeed will get council services. I know for instance that you are very .. you’re just about the same age as me, and one of the things I mentioned was the fact that the forthcoming generation who’ve grown old and paid taxes all their life in the expectation there would be some services there when they are old are going to be disappointed. They just won’t be there. And the other worry is about infrastructure, the roads and other things like that. £600,000 off roads for gritting and stuff next year.
ANDIE HARPER: What a picture you paint for the likes of you and me. baked beans and no hope.
PAUL SALES: Baked beans, no hopes and holes in the road. (THEY LAUGH)
ANDIE HARPER: Paul, it’s been really good to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.


10:48 Wednesday 19th February 2014

ANDIE HARPER: Cuts to road safety funding, parking charges at park and ride sites, and an end to school clothing allowances for low-income families. These are just some of the decisions made by Cambridgeshire County Council at their budget meeting yesterday. A decision was also made on a council tax increase, which will be 1.99%. Now one of the parties involved, UKIP, say there is no need for this increase. I’m joined now by Peter Reeve. Pete is of course a UKIP county councillor for Ramsey. Good morning to you Pete.
PETER REEVE: Good morning Andie.
ANDIE HARPER: So I suppose we have to agree with the general premise that money, large sums of money, had to be saved somehow.
PETER REEVE: Well for the County Council, money had to be saved, or new revenue streams had to come on board. But that was a political decision at Westminster. We do spend £55 million a day on the European Union. And outside of local government politics our party is saying that money should be brought back home, so we don’t have to face these really difficult decisions.
ANDIE HARPER: But given that at the moment that is not going to happen, the County Council were faced with balancing the books. In general, did you support their various measures?
PETER REEVE: No. The critical factor in all of this for the people of Cambridgeshire is whether we needed to have what Eric Pickles is describing as Cambridgeshire’s democracy-dodging taxrises, set just below the limit which would have triggered a referendum, or where there other alternatives? And UKIP set out a very detailed policy paper. It took more than 20 minutes just to present it, over 11 pages, talking about the various options that we could go through, both on income streams such as our Cambridgeshire Homes project, our Love Cambridgeshire Lottery project, revenue from advertising, as well as some of the cuts we would have made that haven’t been made. We would have cut the Chief Executive’s office by 50% and shared it. We’d have stopped councillors’ allowances. We’d have put in payrise freezes. We’d have got rid of dedicated communications officers in the Council. All these things are still money that the Conservatives are spending. And also what’s critical is if we’d have gone with UKIP’s proposals,the Government would have given Cambridgeshire the tax freeze grant of 1% of our budget, which they rejected. So they’ve turned away £2.5 million of national government money from Cambridgeshire, so that they could get even more money out of Cambridgeshire taxpayers. And we just think at this time when people are struggling to pay their mortgages, struggling to put food on the table and petrol in the car, now is not the time to take more money out of Cambridgeshire residents’ household budgets.
ANDIE HARPER: Peter, this is very populist.
PETER REEVE: Popular I think Andie.
ANDIE HARPER: Populist, I think. I can hear and see our listeners nodding their heads and thinking yes, this is great, this is great. A lot of the measures that you outline there would need costing. Do you seriously think that they would allay the £37 million that the Council had to save?
PETER REEVE: We put in a very detailed budget that does cost all of these, line by line. Some of our bigger projects we’ve had to offset to the later years of the 5 year plan. Things like the Cambridgeshire Homes project needs significant investment to achieve. That is achievable. Things like the Love Cambridgeshire Lottery is already being piloted in councils like Thurrock. So we’ve done our homework on this. We’ve really thought it through. And those early savings that would need to be made to make our budget balance we think are the things that Cambridgeshire residents would like to see cut. Things like councillor allowances and payrises and Chief Executives. But at the end of the day, the big savings, the big long term savings that we’ve not got in our figures, but that is absolutely essential for Cambridgeshire, is to move to a unitary council, so we can get rid of lots of buildings, or lease out lots of buildings. We can streamline the entire council across the county. There’s a lot can be done going forward, but the problem is these big decisions should have been made a decade ago, when things were good, money was in reasonable supply. And they could have made tough decisions relatively easily. But the old administration, the Conservative Party, chose not to make the tough decisions when money was plentiful, and instead we’re all forced to make very difficult decisions now.
ANDIE HARPER: I spoke to Cllr Paul Sales earlier, the Labour Leader on the Council, and he told me that Labour abstained because they thought it was going to be a close call. As it happens, it wasn’t perhaps as close as he anticipated. And he took the point of view that to have voted this down would have resulted in chaos. Would you have wanted it to have been voted down, so that today here we were, looking at a council in complete disarray? Is that what you wanted?
PETER REEVE: Well the Council wouldn’t have been in complete disarray. We keep hearing this of the Conservative Party and Labour, and there’s a consistent pattern where the Tories are putting forward proposals not having the majority, and rather than positively voting for or against their proposals, we find the Labour Party abstaining on virtually everything to prop up a weak Conservative Party. We don’t think that’s good politics. We’d rather people were open and honest. Bearing in mind the Labour budget that they put forward would have bankrupted the Council within three years, is the only conclusion anyone can see from their figures. Actually they made a political decision to abstain. They obviously have got some Brownie points off the Conservatives, and they’ll get payback later on them. But we in UKIP say actually we’re not here to make political deals. We’re here to do what’s right, and to fight what’s wrong. That’s what we did yesterday. Because of Labour’s abstention we came out on the losing side of the argument, so people will have the tax rises that the Conservative, LibDems and Labour Party are forcing on them. But UKIP stood up for what it believes in. It stood up for what’s right. And we’re proud that we did that.
ANDIE HARPER: And just finally, it is worth making the point, isn’t it, that all of this has come because of decisions taken at central government level. Whatever the thoughts of people who are county councillors, ultimately they are having to dance to the Government’s tune.
PETER REEVE: That’s a fact. And it’s not just the £55 million a day that could be brought back to the UK. It’s all the massive amount of waste at Whitehall as well. So I’m saying to listeners in Cambridgeshire, we don’t just need UKIP on the County Council, we need UKIP in Government.
ANDIE HARPER: It’s been good to talk to you, as ever. Pete, thanks for joining us.