On 10th February, the City Council set its budget for the next three years. We also debated the awards of grants to third sector organisations for delivering services in local communities. The budget process has been something that Greens have been keen to change since we first presented a budget (that didn’t, and couldn’t, because of numbers in the council, pass) in 2008. It is ridiculous that council officer time and efforts are used to put together budget proposals that can not go anywhere.
This year, the process was certainly an improvement on previous years, and I thank Cllrs Wheeler and Elliott-Cannon for their more open approach this time around, including the opportunities we had to contribute to discussions, and also the phasing of the release of information and decision-making by the publishing of the three different packs over the last 5 months. However, this process is still not ideal; there is still scope to improve both the consultation with members of the public, community groups, trade unions, and other stakeholders, not to mention other political groups. The budget process must be made more effective and efficient.
Largely because of this, we agreed to amend the Labour budget, the only budget available before 10am on budget day itself; it is a budget that shows we can avoid cuts to education, cuts to grants to the voluntary sector, that we can protect the most vulnerable members of our society, and pay our employees a Living Wage. The approach that Labour has taken by engaging with both the Green and Conservative groups is also a clear demonstration that there is a better way of handling this whole process. It is regrettable that the Administration budget was not made public before budget day to allow for a better negotiation process on the only budget that could pass.
Having said this, I always knew it was going to be very difficult to get all-opposition agreement to an alternative budget, given the varying ideological positions of the opposition parties. Greens could never agree to the Conservative approach to the Alternative Business Model project (i.e. privatisation of services), for example. And, it was clear that the negotiations and concessions required to get opposition agreement were not going to be pain free. But showing that the whole process could be done differently was worth the pain and the compromises.
But enough about process, for now at least …
The financial climate we face means that we, as a council, are being forced into the most unwelcome position of having to secure drastic savings, implementing damaging cuts, for several reasons.
Firstly, we have to contend with the gun to our head that is the Council Tax Freeze. The SNP Administration in Holyrood has chosen easy vote-winning politicking over getting the best for the citizens of Scotland. Whilst most in the Chamber acknowledge that Council Tax is a regressive, unfair tax, it is the only means by which we can raise meaningful sums of money. Until we see legislative changes that allow us to raise revenue, by the implementation of a bed-tax, for example, we should not be rendered so utterly impotent.
Secondly, restrictions on what can and cannot be protected have been passed down to us from Holyrood, but also from Westminster. We are being forced to do the dirty work of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Administration in London. It is the poorest and most vulnerable that will bear the brunt of these ideological cuts, and everyone, save the very wealthy, faces a pretty bleak future, thanks to the Westminster Government’s desire to destroy the public sector.
So, we need to be sure that we do not damage the livelihoods and opportunities of our citizens as a result of either the ideological cuts, or the removal of local autonomy. This council needs to focus its efforts on protecting the most vulnerable from tough financial times as well as the hardship faced as a consequence of the unsustainable use of environmental resources. So, were the combined opposition budget to have passed, we would have prioritised our children’s present education and future options; we would have ensured the continuity of support for those with short and long term disabilities or illnesses; and we would have promoted sustainability within the Council, to support a sea change in attitudes to sustainable development and climate change. We must avoid racking up costs for the future by protecting the essential preventative services – debt advice, community health groups, youth clubs and community facilities. Prioritising the preventative work that so many of our voluntary and community organisations deliver would ensure sustainability of communities and the increase in social capital in our city … that’s the kind of capital accumulation that Greens like!
I will conclude by stating again the Greens’ commitment to an open, transparent and inclusive budget process, and I hope that, next year, we will be able to negotiate one budget, not two, or three, or four. I am grateful for the concessions and negotiations that went on behind the scenes to get us to where we were with the combined opposition budget, and I am very proud to be a part of the change that this will bring to future Council budgets.