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The big money debate

CANTERBURY CITY COUNCIL’S ANNUAL BUDGET MEETING – Leader calls for less interference from central government

Canterbury City centre, looking from Rheims Way
Canterbury City centre, looking from Rheims Way

The city council has set its budget for the next financial year amid calls for greater economic independence from Westminster. Leader John Gilbey says the authority’s sound financial position is the result of policies designed to insure it against further funding cuts from central government in years to come. But the Conservative argues that the scale of interference from the centre means money raised in Canterbury disappears out of the district. He told the annual budget meeting at the Guildhall that Canterbury’s authority collects around £450m in business rates which it sends to central government — only to receive £4m back.

“Surely it is logical for us to retain more of these taxes directly to replace our disappearing Revenue Support Grant,” he said. “In the interests of localism, if retention was higher then some service guts ahead could be avoided.”

Last Thursday the city approved its 2015/16 budget, which stands at almost £20m. It agreed to raise its portion of the council tax by 1.99% — the highest figure allowable without triggering a referendum. The increase equates to an extra 1p per day for an average band D property — bringing the total payable to £189 per year for city council services. Cllr Gilbey said:

“Government promised greater fiscal independence, which has to be to the right government level. From long personal involvement in this we have to seriously Look at the potential to become financially independent from Westminster. If anyone can do it, Canterbury can.”

Sian Pettman, a campaigner for greater localism, supports more powers for local authorities to control their own affairs. She said:

“If the concept of localism is to mean anything at all, then greater financial autonomy for local government must be an intrinsic part of it. Over the last five years, the government has not only cut funding to local government by almost 40%, but has also rigidly controlled the powers of local councils to raise their own funds. This has led to widespread conflicts between local councils and local communities, both here in Canterbury and right across the country, as local councils have resorted to selling off ‘the family silver’. It is deeply hypocritical of the government to preach localism, while systematically undermining the capacity of local councils to implement it.”

The evening saw Lib Dems propose six amendments to the budget. They suggested a 10% reduction to councillors’ expenses and allowances, restoring money cut from voluntary groups, setting up a hotline for people to report anti-social behaviour, providing extra funding for rural parishes and imposing a 10% reduction to pest control charges. There should also be no increase in charges for collection of large household items for disposal, the Lib Dems argued. They said these amendments would cost the council £76,000 — money it could take from its reserves of £12.3m. Lib Dems leader, Cllr Alex Perkins said:

“This is not a poor council. We can afford to properly fund these services.”

However, Cllr Peter Lee, the council’s fmance supremo, said money held in reserves was vital for the years ahead when yet more money will be cut from its budget by Westminster.

Why this show must go on…

Lib Dem Alex Perkins
Lib Dem Alex Perkins

The annual budget meeting of Canterbury City Council was political theatre at its best. It sizzled with debate, with argument and counter-argument. There was shouting, there was cheering, there were jokes. There was some cheap and frankly pathetic political point scoring, but there is a city council election around the corner. Those two great beasts of political life in the district — Conservative John Gilbey and Lib Dem Alex Perkins – locked ideological horns over funding cuts to services.
Cllr Perkins, a natural showman, took to his feet to assail the Tories for their “the user pays policy”. He demands services to be available to people regardless of their ability to pay. Why should that be, retorted Cllr Gilbey at his stubborn and authoritative best? Why should someone who doesn’t use a council service pay for someone who does? There is a growing movement for a more conciliatory politics both in Canterbury and in Westminster, where House of Commons speaker John Bercow wants to subdue the raucous weekly shouting match that is Prime Minister’s Questions because he believes it turns people off. Bercow is a lamentable fool. PMQs is the one occasion in the week when political argument enters our consciousness. The dry, grey tedium Mr Bercow envisages is the real turn off.

Conservative John Gilbey
Conservative John Gilbey

All the time that people are passionate about what they believe in, we will have political jousting. Those of us inside the Guildhall last Thursday night witnessed it first hand – and it was a joy to observe. It also proved that politics matters. The forthcoming election matters.

ON ALLOWANCES

Councillors turned down the chance to slim down their allowance and expenses by 10%. Opposition Lib Dems called on the authority to make the cut in order to avoid reducing grants to voluntary organisations. The Conservative majority rejected the Lib Dems’ amendment, arguing it was best left until after the May elections when the council will shrink from 50 to 39 members. Cllr Ben Fitter, who represents Blean Forest, said:

“Reducing allowances would also prevent those on low incomes from participating in democracy.”

Cllr Simon Cook, who represents North Nailbourne, said:

“Members’ allowances should be a matter for the next council. It’s only right that the next council get the right to decide how the next budget is set. We should leave this to our successors. Furthermore, not all councillors need to take all of their allowances.”

But Lib Dem James Flanagan, who represents Westgate and is also seeking election to Parliament, defended the call for the 10% reduction. He said:

“The purpose of this reduction is to raise £29,000 for voluntary groups. What better message to send out than for our elected representatives to show that we are in this together – to say that we will take a 10% cut so that we can make sure there is money for groups who provide services in this district.”

Tory party chairman Neil Baker, who represents Tankerton, accused the Lib Dems of “electioneering” with just over two months until the May 7 vote.

ON VOLUNTARY GROUPS

Thanington Resource Centre manager Paula Spencer
Thanington Resource Centre manager Paula Spencer

Voluntary groups losing funding will suffer the most because of funding cuts in the next budget, Lib Dem leader Alex Perkins told the budget meeting. He urged Canterbury City Council to restore a proposed cut of £30,000 to voluntary organisations, saying:

“This is the cruellest cut, the emergency blanket, the safety net. These are services which cannot survive unless they have that funding.”

But Thanington Resource Centre manager Paula Spencer insists the centre does not need handouts from the council to survive – despite its grant dropping from £20,000 to £15,000. She said:

“We are trying to be totally self-sufficient and don’t go about cap in hand to the authorities trying to get money. We don’t need their money and we don’t want to go about prostituting ourselves with bad luck stories.”

But Labour’s Alan Baldock told the budget meeting that th Northgate Ward Community Centre in Military Road is suffering because of reduced grants. He said:

“The cuts were a massive blow to places like the Northgate Ward Community Centre. The insurance for the minibus ran out last week and now it’s just parked there. I’m asking you to do the right thing and allow the community to get the help it needs.”

Cllr Baldock supported the Lib Dem amendment, which was defeated by the majority Conservative group.

fON THE POLICE

Canterbury Lib Dems called on th council to restore a hotline for reporting antisocial behaviour, rounding on police for allowing incident reports to go unanswered. Wincheap member Nick Eden-Green said:

“Police simply do not turn up, it takes heaven and hell to get them to even give it a crime number. They will do anything they can to avoid taking a report. I rang 999 and waited two hours and nothing happened. I’ve written twice to the Police and Crime Commissioner about this.”

Cllr Nick Eden-Green
Cllr Nick Eden-Green

Cllr Eden-Green, who lives in Dane John Gardens, says he had been’trying to report a fight near his home. As a result of incidents going unrecorded, he believes crime statistics are flawed. He said:

“If you are trying to reduce the number of crimes, then there is an incentive not to record them. This tends to be for low level offences like fighting or vandalism. To be fair to the police, when I rang them about a serious crime, they were there quickly.”

The Lib Dems want the council to spend £25,000 on restoring the anti-social behaviour hotline, which was scrapped through lack of use. Rejecting the amendment, the council’s ruling Tory group insists that anyone wanting to report crime or poor behaviour should call police either on 999 or on the non-emergency 101 line. Cllr Pat Todd, a former policeman who represents Chestfield and Swalecliffe, said:

“If you are dissatisfied with the service, then contact the professional services department at Kent Police.”

Council leader John Gilbey said:

“We stopped the line because people were not using it. The police are ultra busy and always do everything they can.”

Ch Insp Mark Arnold says every reported crime is assessed and priority given for police attendance when lives are in danger, victims are at risk or if further evidence can be gathered. He said:

“New dispersal powers allow us to target areas suffering from antisocial behaviour and it is important residents report any incidents to us so we can build up a detailed picture of the issues. There are more ways than ever to contact Kent Police. As well as calling 999 for emergencies, you can use 101 to report crime, antisocial behaviour or to get in contact with your local community officer. You can also contact us through our website, which has the latest news in your area and advice on keeping safe.”

Ch lnsp Arnold added that crime recording in Kent has been independently assessed as “one of the very best in the country”. He said:

“Kent Police is now recording 96% of crimes accurately and HMIC stated in its Crime Data Integrity report in November that the people of Kent can have confidence in the force’s crime figures.”

ON NEW HOMES

Ukip candidate Jim Gascoyne
Ukip candidate Jim Gascoyne

Ukip parliamentary candidate Jim Gascoyne presented a petition to the council proposing that Canterbury City Council reduce the number of new homes proposed in the Local Plan. Mr Gascoyne told the full council that it should drop the yearly figure of new homes from 780 to 592. He said:

“As you know, the Local Plan provoked howls of protest from the public with some 2,000 requests to change it. In October, Kent County Council published household projections for the Canterbury district which equate to only 592 per annum, a significant reduction from the 780 used in the plan. It is best practice to reconsider previous decisions when new data emerges. I ask you to withdraw the plan and resubmit it, recommending the lower number of dwellings.”

The city council is in detailed negotiations with the planning inspector over the Local Plan, the planning blueprint for the district up to 2031. It envisages 4,000 homes in south Canterbury, 1,000 in Sturry and Broad Oak, 1,000 in Herne Bay, 800 at Strode Farm in Herne, 800 in Hersden, 600 in Greenhill and 400 each at the former Herne Bay Golf Club and Duncan Down in Whitstable. The inspector will hold a public inquiry into the plan as early as March and then present his recommendations later in the year. The full council could then be asked to adopt the final plan in late summer or autumn. The Lib Dems accused Mr Gascyone and Ukip of “shallow political opportunism”. Cllr Nick Eden-Green said:

“The closing date for representations on the local plan was months ago. Ukip failed to put in any comments whatsoever so they will be debarred from addressing the planning inspector because of their failure to comment. The Conservatives and Labour have saddled us with the plan and the housing numbers. Even they can’t change it now so there’s no point telling them belatedly to do so.”

Herne Bay Gazette, February 26th 2015

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