The best we can do in the circumstances

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Curtain up at Reading borough’s council meeting and the cast, chorus and audience stood for the entry of the mayor. As the mace-bearer struggled to balance his apparently weighty (4.5kg) ceremonial insignia, stagehands scurried hither and thither to find the right props to support it before the performance could start. This council meeting was a dress rehearsal for the opening of Reading Borough Council’s (RBC’s) 2017/18 season and ‘the best we can do in the circumstances’ had not started well.

The script was not as original as the audience had hoped. The refrain of blaming the financial predicament on “government cuts” was so oft repeated that if the cast and chorus on stage had turned off their microphones, the audience could have sung along for them.

Councillor Emmett McKenna was given the not very original line of accusing Green councillors that they were asking the council to support “the setting of an illegal budget”. That was in response to an amendment tabled by councillor Rob White requesting a report on reducing the numbers of agency staff and consultants employed by RBC so that the money could be used to save children’s centres threatened with closure.

The Liberal Democratic characters supported the Green amendment by showing similar concerns for the cost of agency staff and consultants and the long term use of interim managers. Councillor Ricky Duveen continued with criticism of the council for mismanagement, including the continuing failure to agree equal pay settlements with female staff, saying :

This budget sets aside £11.3 million to cover the expected cost of equal pay claims. Rather than settling these claims years ago, having acknowledged that we discriminated against many low paid women employed by the council, we have caused even more suffering by not settling in the last ten years. One claimant has already died without seeing the money owed by the council. Are we really waiting for them all to die off before settling? That Reading should be the last council in the country not to have settled any of these claims is morally wrong.

A mock battle of the graphs was played out between the Labour and Conservative groups who were on different pages of the script and therefore could not possibly hope to comprehend what the other was saying.

The Labour graph was the well known declining curve of central government’s revenue support grant (RSG) from the heady heights of an annual £40.3 million in 2013/14 to an estimated £2 million by 2019/20 [page B15]. The less well known ‘Conservative’ graph [page B14] showed three sources of income; RSG, business rates and council tax income. The latter shows that income from all these sources will increase slightly in 2017/18 compared with 2016/17 from £120.1 million to £125.3 million.

But Conservative councillors were anxious to reach the end of the script. Councillor David Stevens, who chairs the audit & governance committee, emphasised the auditor’s reports, including the most recent correspondence between the auditors and the council’s managing director:

Don’t underestimate the seriousness of this intervention. It is extremely unusual for an external auditor to make written recommendations to a local authority; only three authorities this year have written recommendations. If they are saying this now, what confidence can we have that these savings really are deliverable in the coming year?

The serious concerns of the auditor really can’t be relegated to appendix 11a of the budget report.

Councillor Stevens did not name the other authorities that had received statutory written recommendations (also known as ‘s24 reports’), but he could have been referring to the Isles of Scilly and Birmingham City Council which have been reported in a University of Birmingham blog.

Councillor Rachel Eden set out some of the council’s achievements in improving services, such as Phoebe Cusden House in Katesgrove, going on to say that this good work was under threat because:

On the one side we have the false promise of attempting to set a no-cuts budget, having already used our reserves. Well, that would lead to central government sending commissioners in and shutting down this good work. On the other side we have the short termism of the national Tory approach, of retreating to the residualisation of local services and the retreat of local democracy and all we’re doing is managing decline.

Did she forget which stage she was on when she continued her rallying cry? There was amusement from her supporting chorus:

The balance between making either of those two mistakes comrades and, er, colleagues, is getting harder.

Councillor Tony Jones‘ character was written with the man or woman on Reading buses’ emerald number five in mind. He suggested that people could not relate to a budget in millions and reduced it to the sort of money we might understand. Explaining the difficulty of managing on a household budget reduced from £40 to £2 a week, he pulled some banknotes and coins out of his pocket to illustrate the point saying that “it’s impossible“.

Councillor Tony Page attempted to counter the Conservative arguments:

Clearly the change of auditors has brought a flexing of muscles; that happens with all authorities and councillor Stevens knows that as well… Reading Borough Council recognises the pressures that we are under; we will address them and there is no danger whatosever of this authority becoming insolvent and under this administration that will not happen.

The spectre of Mr Micawber was in the council chamber, “Welcome poverty!.. Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!” as councillor Jo Lovelock summed up.

We will rise to the challenge; we will deal with this situation and hope that over the coming years we will finally get some information about how local government is going to be funded… because it’s not just Labour authorities saying it.

Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Green councillors voted against the budget which was passed 30 in favour and 11 against. Some councillors were absent.

Exeunt omnes, preceded by the mace-bearer and mayor.

Two Katesgrove cast members were present in the councillor’s chorus but were not given speaking parts in the performance. Councillor Matt Rodda participated in the warm up act and encore which will be covered in a later edition.


Links

  1. A brief history of the mayor’s insignia
  2. Government cuts force council tax rises
  3. Tears at the fate of Reading’s children’s centres
  4. Council’s going bankrupt ? Don’t be Scilly!
  5. Auditors now have their two pennyworth on council finances
  6. Reading Borough Council meeting 21 February 2017 – papers and webcast
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