Reading Borough councillors have rejected a proposal to save an estimated £300,000 over four years by changing how often local elections are run.
Most wards in Reading have three councillors, and each councillor is elected for four years. One third of the councillors stand for election each successive year with one ‘fallow’ year when no local election is held, which means that elections are currently held in three out of every four years.
Councillor David Stevens (Conservative) proposed that all councillors stand for election at the same time, once every four years, leading to an estimated saving of £150,000 for each of the two years in which an election wasn’t held.
“What we have heard are concerns about reductions in spending for children’s care, elderly care and education,” he said at the council meeting on 24 January. “We’ve also heard about extra charges, bin charges, parking permits, and we’ve also heard this week the extraordinary measure of having to remortgage one our properties.”
He said that his proposal was a significant cost saving measure that would neither cause job losses nor reduce service levels to borough residents.
Councillor Ricky Duveen (Liberal Democrat) responded that the Conservatives “knew the price of everything but the value of nothing.” He added that all parties made greater effort at election times and an annual process made candidates more responsive to electors.
“If there was a large saving to be had,” said councillor Jo Lovelock (Labour), “then it might be something we would look at, but £150,000 is not going to solve problems in adult social care, housing or children’s services.”
She added that a saving of £150,000 was not guaranteed as other elections may need to be held between the four yearly cycle.
Councillor Rob White (Green) said that four yearly elections were “undemocratic” and would turn the council into an “electoral dictatorship.”
“If councillor Stevens is concerned about money saving, then I suggest he pays more attention to the amount paid to consultants, interim managers and agency staff,” he added. “More focus here would save millions over four years.”
Councillor Hopper (Conservative) said that the council had already made numerous decisions that would generate only small amounts of money but cause hardship, such as doubling the cost of blue badges or charging for parking permits.
“The Labour group refuses to consider a proposal which would save the authority significantly larger sums of money,” he said. “It smacks of a council which has misjudged its relative importance to the people of this town, who want a well-run and solvent council and not one that holds on to an expensive electoral cycle, the cost of which could be spent elsewhere.”
“Other places do have four yearly elections… but I think it’s not right for Reading,” said councillor Rachel Eden, adding that none of her constituents had ever raised the electoral cycle as an issue.
Other local councils are investigating how to reduce costs by changing how their democracy works. West Berkshire authority, for example, has launched a public consultation to reduce how many councillors they have.