It gives me great pleasure to deliver the Conservative Party amendment to this budget. I would like to start by thanking officers that have assisted us with the preparation of the amendment, whether in Directorates in general or particularly in Finance.
I believe this amendment, assuming it is passed and I am not counting my chickens quite yet, will improve the budget. But that is what we are doing – we are amending and slightly improving the budget rather than rewriting every line. There is clearly a very practical point about a group of two trying in a few weeks to rewrite a budget as compared to an entire Executive, backed by all officers and looking at the budget for months.
There was of course a parallel to the difficulties of a group of two compiling an amendment in the Green Group of a few years ago. I would argue our task is harder than theirs though in that fundamentally we are seeking to constrain spending, whereas they would consistently plant money trees that would make Jeremy Corbyn blush. It is interesting that now they are in power, they dare not propose a referendum on council time and cynically with their Lib Dem masters are going for the very highest increase without giving the people a say.
We will no doubt be told the people had their say last year but we should be in no doubt that this sort of council tax rise did not feature in the Lib Dem leaflets. Since that point it can only be said the government settlement with councils is actually higher than expected and so the only need for such a rise is overspending to date or planned in the future.
The council’s own budget consultation gave a clear answer that residents want a measured increase in council tax, with a significant number not supporting any increase at all. Even a Lib Dem bar chart could not justify this level of increase.
We have of course already been told by the Lib Dems that this increase is needed due to the bad Conservative government. Quite how lower levels of Conservative government funding cuts to local authorities are worse than the higher level of funding cuts from the Conservative Lib Dem coalition government remains a mystery to me and one I hope the Council Leader can finally explain.
Our amendment shows the intent for what we believe should be done. Crucially it seems, unlike every other party here, we are the only ones that understand that council money comes from our residents, whether locally or nationally collected. We also believe the duty of the council is to provide core frontline services and look after the most vulnerable, but we believe York residents can spend their money better than the Lib Dems can spend it for them. Our amendment saves 0.5% from the council tax increase, which is less than we would like but will be welcomed by residents.
We have not sought to amend the capital budget as the detail of most of the schemes is so ludicrously light the budget is rendered virtually meaningless. We believe the general thrust of the schemes is welcome but much, much more information and value for money assessment is needed rather than the norm of amounts being bid for based on a few lines of vague generalities and then members being reassured that it is already allocated so can be spent.
Given the ongoing problems in waste collection we need improvements in this area but much of the solution should be management improvements and it is hard to see that in the lines we have in the revenue budget. Calling something ‘investment’ doesn’t mean it isn’t just plugging a hole in a leaky area. We want to ensure the waste fleet is resilient but £6.6 million on vehicles is a lot of spend and whilst we would like to see electric vehicles the wording of how unready the technology is makes this look much more a headline grabbing nice to have than a true officer belief.
We also welcome the tree planting and the commitment to the Northern Forest. The coalition is not proposing to plant as many trees as the Conservatives committed to in our manifesto but what they are doing is welcome. However despite having spoken to various people in the field we have no idea how the project can possibly be anywhere near as expensive as the budgeted amounts.
Whilst I will not go through every line, our amendment will see new spending in a variety of areas including a new green bin round for Christmas tree collections, higher funding to mental health and the introduction of the new HENRY scheme which has worked well in other areas and has had positive comments when discussed at Health Scrutiny. This will ensure better Health, Education and Nutrition for the Really Young. We are also launching a new fund for improving public transport solutions at a relatively micro level.
Most controversially for the Lib Dems we wish to reverse their first decisions on forming the administration and remove the additional Executive Member and the new chair’s allowance for the Climate Change committee.
As an aside this committee has still achieved essentially nothing and it remains hugely disappointing that what we are told is a cross party committee continues to not have any Conservative representative, as the Executive has said it must be subject to proportionality and it is not one of the proportional committees that they have allocated to us. We must work together on this issue and in the unlikely event our amendment is not passed I would urge Cllr Vassie’s committee to look at our idea of a scheme working with commercial van companies to subsidise vans to small businesses for a trial period of a few weeks. A similar scheme has been running in Leeds and small businesses try an electric vehicle at no or little cost to them in a way they could not otherwise do, before hopefully realising it is just as good for their journeys and we can take further pollutants off the roads.
Our amendment will save money in a number of other ways including printing savings, cutting overtime and more efficient working in West Offices as well as reducing the ever increasing communications budget. We did seek to make a saving by cutting the ‘Your City’ publication or making it fund itself by suitable partner advertising but were told that despite absurdly regularly spending more than £75,000 per year on it there isn’t even a budget line for it and so it cannot be taken as a saving. What other organisation or company could possibly budget like this?
I remember in the last council term when the Lib Dem plan to get York as a Purple Flag city failed to get off the ground it is back now. Would being a Purple Flag city bring benefit? Maybe slightly. Is it worth a £50,000 spend? Absolutely not, that is an incredible amount of extra visits needed.
Who has friends or family thinking about visiting our incredible medieval city with sights, restaurants and festivals but it’s just not enough and York being a Purple Flag city may tip them to the point of coming? Not me. This is not money well spent and sums up this budget.
We know the Lib Dems want to ignore the secret meeting held on 17th February to pay off an Officer retiring early. Despite the nature of the process meaning there are only a few specific officers this could have been and all others are seen regularly going to work except one I understand most Lib Dems will still not even admit who the officer in question is. Thank goodness this administration and the Chief Executive repeatedly committed to being transparent and open? Me too, those days look long gone though.
However having coped without a Chief Executive for nearly a year we believe we should seek to continue to do so and our amendment therefore has that as a saving. We would not start from where we are and all the money wasted on the Chief Executive leaving but with the council several hundred thousand pounds poorer we urge the Executive to give serious thought to not recruiting a replacement.
As I say, this amendment is not perfect, it merely makes a bad budget better but that is a step in the right direction and I urge members to support it. It would see council tax rise by less than the Lib Dems and Greens propose and improve services and add new areas of welcome spend in creating the best chances for children, waste collection, improvements to transport and mental health. This would be broadly done by a more efficient council and savings; all of which officers agree are prudent and deliverable as they have given their support to our amendment.
Lord Mayor, it gives me great pleasure to formally propose the Conservative amendment.