07:40 Thursday 7th March 2013
Bigger Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[P]AUL STAINTON: Boy was it a feisty Council meeting at the Town Hall in Peterborough last night. Councillors were gathering to vote on the Budget proposals for the next twelve months, which included the equivalent of 63 full-time redundancies, a reduction in adult social care services, and cuts to the city’s playcentres. The proposal was passed, but only just. 29 voted in favour, and 25 councillors against, with one councillor abstaining. But listeners to the show contacted us this morning saying that the meeting had to be adjourned at one point because the debate became too heated. Well Lisa Forbes is a city councillor and the Labour Parliamentary candidate for Peterborough and she was at last night’s feisty meeting. Morning Lisa.
LISA FORBES: Good morning.
PAUL STAINTON: Sounds eventful. It all happened, didn’t it, when the public were asking about the solar farm project.
LISA FORBES: Yes it did. I’m not sure why it became so heated quite so early on either really. I was expecting that a bit later on in the meeting when we started to debate the budget itself. But yes. i was quite surprised to be fair.
PAUL STAINTON: What happened?
LISA FORBES: Nicola Day-Dempsey has changed her name recently to Nicola Day, and Councillor Fitzgerald was quite rude to her, and basically said Nicola Day, or whatever it is you’re calling yourself at the moment. It was just uproar. It was just rude. There was no need for anybody, especially a councillor, to speak to a member of the public that had come to ask a question, there was just no need to speak to her in that way. And I think everybody felt incensed by it.
PAUL STAINTON: Well Councillor Fitzgerald is not here to defend himself this morning.
LISA FORBES: No, absolutely. I’m just telling you what I saw and what heppened. And I’m sure that’s a similar account to what other people have been saying to you as well.
PAUL STAINTON: Well we do have Councillor David Seaton on the show after eight so we will ask him about that and get his take on it. The public were aksing about this solar panel project, which the Council needs to happen to balance the budget, doesn’t it?
LISA FORBES: It does. But I think what people were saying last night was that it’s a big risk. And Marco himself said that we made a mistake at Freemans. I think the concern is if it were to go wrong, the potential is that we would bankrupt ourselves as a city. And when you look at the Freemsns venture, it doesn’t bode too well for the future, and I think sometimes we worry about keeping that tag of the Environment Capital too much. I think that there are genuine concerns that that venture is too risky. It’s a massive amount of money that we’d be spending on that.
PAUL STAINTON: Just looking at the vote as well last night, Conservatives normally stick together on these sorts of things, but some Tories must have voted against it, 29-25 1 abstention.
LISA FORBES: I think Councillor Sanders was really upset at the Council meeting last night. He was talking about the fact that he’d tried to get figures, financial figures, from Council officers and Council members responsible in the Cabinet, but was unable to get those figures.
PAUL STAINTON: He represents some of the farmers as well, doesn’t he?
LISA FORBES: He has been representing the farmers, but then that’s his job. That’s what he’s elected to do.
PAUL STAINTON: So he feels that strongly he votes against his own party basically.
LISA FORBES: Yes.
PAUL STAINTON: If the solar project doesn’t go ahead, where would you suggest finding this £17 million hole.
LISA FORBES: It’s difficult, and to be fair it’s not really my job to do that at the moment. My job at the moment in opposition is to scrutinise their decisions.
PAUL STAINTON: What would you do if you were in power?
LISA FORBES: It’s hard for me to say, because that was my first ever Council meeting last night as a councillor. So my job last night was to look at housing, and to scrutinise the policy on housing. If I were in their position I would be looking at the whole thing from a completely different perspective.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Does Labour have a plan at all?
LISA FORBES: I’m sure we do, and I’m sure when the time comes we will look at how we would set the budget. I’m sure that will happen, but we’re just not in that position at the moment. So all we can do is scrutinise their budget.
[P]AUL STAINTON: We’ve had many listeners to the show contacting us this morning saying the meeting had to be adjourned at one point because the debate became too heated, particularly when talking about solar panels. Well Councillor David Seaton Cabinet Member for Resources, or I suppose you could call him the Money Man to you and I. Morning David.
DAVID SEATON: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: Just what went on last night? Because it did get a bit heated at times, didn’t it?
DAVID SEATON: Yes it did. Politics can get a bit passionate last night .. can get a bit passionate like that. There was some amazing Stalinist revision of history last night. One councillor actually said he worked for an investment bank so he knew Labour saved the day, weren’t responsible for our massive debt and deficit. What a load of ed balls that was. But we are having to make some tough decisions in the interests of this city, and we all get passionate about that. We don’t want to make these cuts but we have to. We can’t spend more than we receive Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: No. Can I just clear one thing out of the way? There’s an accusation that Councillor Fitzgerald was rude to somebody else. Did that happen or not?
DAVID SEATON: Well I think what Councillor Forbes didn’t mention is that Nicola Day is a Labour activist, and she asked quite a long question. And I think Councillor Fitzgerald pointed that out. But I think I’d rather stay out of that.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. I just wanted to give you the opportunity to defend him if he was maligned in any way on our show. But there you go. It is a difficult budget, isn’t it? It is a difficult time. Many people don’t like what you’re doing, or potentially doing in Eye. Councillor Cereste as I understand it admitted a mistake was made with the solar panels at Freemans. And a lot of people are very worried that the same mistakes could be made again.
DAVID SEATON: Well we’ve had something like 20 solar power projects. One has a problem and we’re sorting that out.
PAUL STAINTON: A big problem though David. Big problem.
DAVID SEATON: Yes absolutely. And we’re trying to sort that out. But I’d make one point Paul and you raised this earlier with Councillor Forbes. You know, opposition councillors have been shouting about play centres. They’ve been shouting about the solar project in recent months. They’ve spoken on your show, moaned and groaned. But it came to the crunch last night and they had to say, yes, we’d raise council tax by 20%, we’d set different priorities, cut different services. What did we get, we got nothing. No alternative budget, not even an amendment to say don’t spend on this, spend on the play centres. Nothing at all. I think it shows residents what they’re really like. It’s a total cop-out.
PAUL STAINTON: Well we did ask them for their plan this morning, Labour’s plan, and it wasn’t forthcoming, as you probably heard earlier. If you didn’t go ahead with this solar farm in Newborough .. because it’s an intrinsic part of your budget, it balances it doesn’t it quite dramatically .., where would you be?
DAVID SEATON: It would add £4 million, £4.5 million to the cuts we’d have to make. That’s the real challenge. Next year we’ve still got to find another £7 million. Add another £4.5 million on that and you’re getting into some very serious numbers, you know, 20% of our adult social care bill, potentially a third of children’s services. So very serious.
PAUL STAINTON: There was some good news last night though, cuts to meals on wheels is to be spread over a longer period. I say good news, slightly less bad news.
DAVID SEATON: Yes. I’d agree with that. It will be spread over two years. And of course the other good news is we’re freezing council tax. But again, the opposition voted against that last night.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. Where are you going to get all these extra cuts from then in the next three, four, five years? Where’s that money coming from?
DAVID SEATON: Well I think there’s a whole range of things we’re doing. We’re looking at how we commission services,the whole structure of the Council we’re looking at at the present time. It’s my intention that over the next two three months we work on that and we bring those proposals forward. We’ve had some very good news about the money we’ll see for building schools, so I think that will help us. So I think there are ways of doing it.
PAUL STAINTON: What if .. what if .. I’m just throwing this out there. What if the solar farm plan doesn’t work near Eye? It doesn’t bring in the money that you thought. Where would you be as a Council?
DAVID SEATON: Well part of our strategy has been to try and bring income in. If we don’t bring that income in, then just like was mentioned last night, Newcastle have just closed ten out of eighteen libraries. You start to get down to not reducing library hours but having to cut some very serious services across the city. And I don’t think any of us want to go there.
PAUL STAINTON: What is the predicted shortfall, even with the current cuts then, say in five years time. Will you be there in five years time, even if the solar farm works, will you have to make some serious cutbacks in four, five years from now?
DAVID SEATON: Well as I said Paul in the next two, three months we’re going to try and bring forward further initiatives to close that gap, and to close the future gap.
PAUL STAINTON: It’s about £60 million, isn’t it?
DAVID SEATON: Well no Paul because you have to take into account the energy park proposals. So it’s less than that. But it’s a very big challenge. All councils are in the same boat.
PAUL STAINTON: Well I’ve got your budget here and it says overall financial position by the time we get to 2017/2018, minus £61 million. Financial gap after cost pressures investment and ? production. Is that not right then?
DAVID SEATON: Well I think there are other areas that you have to look at Paul in considering that.
PAUL STAINTON: So that’s wrong, is it?
DAVID SEATON: That’s why I say, in the next two, three months, we’ll be working on the areas such as commissioning. We’ll be taking into account the grant we’ve received from Government ..
PAUL STAINTON: Can I just clarify this figure though? If things stay as they are, £61 million budget deficit by 2017. According to your figures. I’ve got your paper in front of me here.
DAVID SEATON: Yes. It’s a very serious position that we’re in. And that’s why we’re working on bringing income in from the energy park. We’re working on a new structure for the Council and looking at better commissioning. There’s a whole series of proposals we’ll bring forward in the next two to three months.
PAUL STAINTON: To bring that down.
DAVID SEATON: To close those gaps.
PAUL STAINTON: £61 million the deficit by 2017/2018. It’s a big amount of money, isn’t it? Where are they going to find that?