Kilian Bourke on Coalition Politics, Local Democracy and His Alternative Budget for Cambridgeshire County Council

17:20 Monday 20th February 2012
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

CHRIS MANN: The County Council tomorrow votes on the budget for next year, including a 2.95% rise in council tax. When they announced their proposals, the Leader of the ruling Conservatives, Council Leader Nick Clarke gave us an extended interview on this programme. Now, on the eve of the crucial vote, it’s the turn of the Leader of the Opposition, Liberal Democrat councillor Kilian Bourke. (TAPE)
KILIAN BOURKE: We’ve prepared what’s called a budget amendment Chris, so we look at what they have proposed, and then we propose extra savings that we could make, by for example cutting the Press Office back. And we use the extra money generated by that to fund our spending priorities. So protecting bus services, for example. It has to add up. And everyone votes on our amendment, and if it passes, which it doesn’t usually, then you vote on the amended budget. And if it doesn’t, you vote on the original budget that the Conservatives propose.
CHRIS MANN: You’ve spent many week, in fact months, working on this.
CHRIS MANN: But you’re in the minority on the Council. So this isn’t going to get passed.
KILIAN BOURKE: In my experience it’s unprecedented for an opposition budget amendment to be passed, which makes it quite tough sometimes working on it. But it’s really important. And quite often what happens is the following year the administration use lots of the proposals that are in our amendment.
CHRIS MANN: Democracy in action, I think you’ll find.
CHRIS MANN: But you as a Liberal Democrat know that you do control some councils around the country. You have Cambridge City Council of course. You have the MP for Cambridge. So there is potential for you. It’s worth working on this.
KILIAN BOURKE: Absolutely. It’s time well spent.
CHRIS MANN: You are in opposition to the Conservatives in the County Council, but you are in partnership with the Conservatives in the national government. How does that make you .. or does it affect you at all?
KILIAN BOURKE: I don’t think it does. Our parliamentary party is in a coalition with the Conservative parliamentary party, but locally we’re totally independent parties, and we’re the opposition. So we will selectively oppose things that we think the Conservatives are doing wrong. And we will occasionally support them when they do something right.
CHRIS MANN: So what do you think they’re doing wrong in their budget, and what are the big things that you say you would do differently?
KILIAN BOURKE: Some of the things they’re doing wrong .. they’re still planning to cut 100% of our rural bus services. And I think that’s a big mistake. Effectively they’re talking about growing the local economy. But they’re at the same time cutting off access to it. So that’s going to, not deal with, but worsen problems relating to that.
CHRIS MANN: They’re not cutting the services. They’re stopping the subsidy, which is not the same thing.
KILIAN BOURKE: They’re stopping the subsidy, but if it’s a subsidised service, it’s not commercially viable, and it’s ..
CHRIS MANN: But they’re putting in replacement services, aren’t they?
KILIAN BOURKE: Well that would be nice.
CHRIS MANN: They’re trialling replacement services.
KILIAN BOURKE: They’re trialling one or two, but they’re planning to go ahead with cutting the whole lot. And it’s definitely not the case that there is a real alternative that’s ready, around the county, for those bus companies.
CHRIS MANN: But you said they were cutting 100% of services. They’re not doing that.
KILIAN BOURKE: They’re cutting 100% of bus subsidies, which means that probably 100% of the rural subsidised bus services will not be commercially viable.
CHRIS MANN: They deny that. We shall see how that develops. What else do you disagree with them on?
KILIAN BOURKE: They’re not doing enough, in my opinion, to tackle inequality and rural isolation. They could be investing more in our young people. Their budget for social care for the elderly, there are big holes in that. And I think, finally, we’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t possible to protect core services without increasing council tax, but we don’t think the Conservatives should be setting aside £100,000 for a potential pay rise for councillors. We disagree with that.
CHRIS MANN: Their proposed adjustment to the council tax is to raise it. Do you agree with them, and by how much they’re raising it?
KILIAN BOURKE: Well we disagree to a small extent in that we have reduced the provision. We haven’t included the £100,000 for councillors to give themselves a pay rise. So we have reduced the council tax accordingly, by a very very small amount.
CHRIS MANN: That is also .. the very emotive subject of the councillors’ allowances is being examined by an independent grouping I think. You’ll be aware that that’s just started. So again that’s something that .. it’s quite a small matter. It’s a big issue to some people. It’s quite emotive, would you agree?
KILIAN BOURKE: I would. It’s about restoring public trust. And we accept that there are issues here. We just feel that it’s the wrong time to be giving councillors .. for councillors to be giving themselves a pay rise. And we try to engage with that in a constructive way in our budget by proposing to reduce the number of Cabinet members by three, and redistribute most of that money among the rest of the Cabinet. So that might reduce the pressure for an increase from the Conservative side.
CHRIS MANN: One of the points that the Leader of the Council Nick Clark makes is that he’s lost three Cabinet members over the last couple of years, because they can’t afford to go on being unpaid, without a decent allowance. Because it’s almost a full-time job, would you agree with that?
KILIAN BOURKE: When we sign up to become councillors, we don’t sign up to be professional salaried employees, in the normal sense. Some of your time is supposed to be voluntary. And you’re not being paid professional commercial rates. That’s not the case, and that’s what you sign up for. So there is an assumption that you’re able to have other employment. And I don’t think people should be expecting to be paid professional .. full professional rates.
CHRIS MANN: But then you’re not going to get the kind of people who might be good for the county, because they can’t afford to do the job.
KILIAN BOURKE: I’m not so sure about that. Lots of people can work flexibly. Another suggestion we have proposed is to hold more meetings in the evening. If you did that, people would find it much easier to have jobs at the same time. And that wouldn’t really be a problem, other than for Full Council, which takes most of the day. That could start in the afternoon.
CHRIS MANN: Some of the things that the Conservatives say are to the fore of their budget, which you’re going to be debating tomorrow, is extending the broadband, helping infrastructure, the train services, the new stations,and things like that. Do you agree with those?
KILIAN BOURKE: A lot of it, yes. We have been calling for massive investment in our roads for years. If you invest more up front, you make a saving in the long term. And we called for years for a highways maintenance review to be done. Eventually the Scrutiny Committee allowed us to lead that review. And it called for massive investment. And now it’s happening. So of course we’re going to propose something. But we have called for and put together the proposal for Chesterton Station, which is a no-brainer. The Liberal Democrats have been calling for it for years. There’s no difference in any of the political parties on that issue. Broadband, we would actually go further than the Conservatives, and invest an extra £2 million for a targeted investment in rural areas, particularly, such as Wisbech. And there’s also a slight difference there in that we would go for an equity investment, rather than simply gifting commercial corporations with taxpayers’ money. We would get a return for our investment. So we’re trying to be sensible with taxpayers’ money. (LIVE)
CHRIS MANN: Kilian Bourke, Leader of the Opposition Liberal Democrats on Cambridgeshire County Council, ahead of the big budget debate and vote tomorrow.