Calderdale Conservatives staged a walk-out in the middle of last night’s (Wednesday) meeting of Calderdale Council in protest against its proposed financial strategy following a knife-edge vote.
Councillors were voting on whether or not to approve two crucial elements of the council’s Mid Term Financial Strategy which saw the chamber tied at 24 votes each with Labour councillors backing Cabinet’s recommendation and Conservative, Liberal Democrat representatives against.
Mayor of Calderdale, Conservative councillor Marcus Thompson had abstained on the vote but gave his second, casting, vote in favour of the recommendations meaning the MTFS, effectively a first step in the annual budget service, has been approved.
He explained to councillors why he had made that decision.
“It’s never happened before for a local authority to proceed without a financial strategy, which would leave us not just locally or regionally but nationally in a terrible situation, because its not like a budget in which I can suggest members go off and have a row or sort things out or make changes.
“It leaves us adrift and would have huge reputational damage on Calderdale, on the community and all of us as members,” he said, and with the motion carried Conservative group leader
Coun Scott Benton led his party colleagues out of the chamber. They returned several agenda items later.
Councillors had been asked to increase the authority’s operational boundary for external debt to £142 million and raise the authorised limit for external debt to £150 million for the 2018-19 financial year.
It was also agreed to include up to £15 million in the council’s capital programme to proceed with its investment strategy, included in the overall MTFS.
Coun Benton (Brighouse) said after the meeting the walk-out was in protest at the strategy being approved not personally against Councillor Thompson. Councillor Thompson (Skircoat) told the chamber the departure of Deputy Mayor Chris Pillai was due to a work commitment and no other reason.
Council leader Coun Tim Swift (Lab, Town) had introduced the item saying the council had to make cuts of just under £2 million this year, rising to nearly £9 million in the third year of the strategy, on top of £100 million of savings it had made since 2010 due to Government cuts.
And this was at a time of uncertainty over future Government funding arrangements, with rising children’s and adults’ social services costs, he said.
Coun Swift said he could completely understand why Conservative councillors did not want spending cuts discussed but it provided the context. Coun Geraldine Carter (Con, Ryburn) had challenged bringing in debate not directly relevant to what councillors were being asked to vote on following a row between the parties over a previous agenda item.
With statutory children’s and adults’ social services costs taking up 60 per cent of the council’s budget – and rising – all other services would be squeezed, he said.
“We have to plan for Calderdale’s spending and services in the framework we have identified but with a rising level of uncertainty. To protect services will be very tough,” said Coun Swift.
Provision for new cost pressures such as the national living wage were built in and the council was looking to generate additional finance itself through investment, he said.
But Coun Stephen Baines (Con, Northowram and Shelf) said the deficit left by the last Labour Government played its part and if they had managed finances more prudently when in charge nationally “we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Coun Benton said his group had serious concerns about the strategy, not least a three per cent rise in Council Tax that it would mean.
“Let’s not forget if we had strict financial controls the administration would have more money to spend on the day-to-day services we all value,” he said. A number of services had failed to deliver agreed savings, the strategy was the wrong approach for Calderdale and could cause it fundamental damage, he said.
Liberal Democrat leader Coun James Baker (Warley) said his group could not agree to the recommendations either.
He criticised Labour’s borrowing for capital projects which would have to be paid back while basics like drains clearing and dealing with fly-tipping suffered.