Apologies that is has taken me over a week to pen this blog about the budget-setting meeting of Full Council on Thursday 11th February but I have had a lot on. The meeting was preceded by an extraordinary meeting of the Council to vote on a proposal from the Deputy Mayor – Cllr Danny Lawrence (Con, Billericay West) – to award the Freedom of the Borough to Olympic gymnast and Basildon resident Max Whitlock, who trained at the Sporting Village and was part of the first British men’s team to win an Olympic medal for 100 years, and also to Basildon-born world snooker champion Stuart Bingham, in recognition of their eminent service to the Borough and their achievements on the international stage, which has brought satisfaction and pride to the people of Basildon. Both are great ambassadors for the Borough. It is only the second time the Council has voted to award the Freedom of the Borough (the previous recipient was the Royal Anglian Regiment).
Somewhat bizarrely, as part of the increasingly erratic leadership decisions of Linda Allport-Hodge (U, Langdon Hills), the UKIP Group chose to abstain on the vote on granting honorary freeman status to Messrs Whitlock and Bingham. This was pretty poor, considering that it is usually the done thing, once such honorary civic awards come to be voted on at an extraordinary meeting, that they should be passed unanimously – the understanding being that, if there is any controversy surrounding the award, it would be raised at the Employment & General Purposes Committee when the award is being considered, not at a public vote. The reasons why UKIP chose to abstain were not immediately apparent and are still rather foggy. The excuse originally given was that they objected to the expense of a big public ceremony to award the distinctions (in actual fact, it is likely to be quite a modest affair – not a ticker-tape parade followed by a banquet; most likely just the handing over of a couple of scrolls followed by some nibbles in the Mirren Suite at the Towngate Theatre) but this high moral objection was rather undermined when it was revealed, subsequent to the meeting, that Councillor Allport-Hodge had in fact made her own recommendation for Freedom of the Borough but it had been rejected. It seems that it may have been a mixture of this, and pique at her unsuccessful lobbying of the Cabinet Member for Resources for some money for her ward, that may have caused her to instruct her supposedly un-whipped members to abstain on the vote. Pretty shabby, in my opinion.
We then moved into the main meeting of Full Council, starting with a minute’s silence for the late Desmond Lake, a Conservative Councillor for Burstead from 2002-6. It was also formally announced – though we had all been informally notified by e-mail some weeks prior – that Cllr Trevor Malsbury (U, Lee Chapel North) had resigned from the Council. This continues the rapid slippage in the strength of the UKIP Group, which became the second largest party and main Opposition group on Basildon Council in 2014 with twelve councillors. They are now down to seven and are the third-largest group, behind Labour. Only one of those lost his seat at an election (Nigel Le Gresley in Wickford Castledon in 2015), the rest all either resigned or defected. They have actually lost seven councillors in total since 2014 but gained two seats from Labour in addition to the one they lost to us last year. It is quite something when you think about it.
Due to the proximity of the Local Elections in May, it is not necessary to hold a bye-election to replace Mr Malsbury, who was up for re-election in any case. He was elected by a wafer-thin majority of just two votes in 2014 to fill the additional Lee Chapel North seat left vacant by the resignation of former Labour leader Lynda Gordon.
Public Question Time was a question from Dr Philip Gibbs to the Cabinet Member for Regeneration & Planning regarding Gypsies and Travellers and Members’ Question Time consisted of a question from Councillor Allport-Hodge to the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr Kevin Blake (Con, Burstead), who is also Cabinet Member for Arts & Leisure, asking what the Council is doing to protect public art in Basildon, south of the A127. The phrasing of this question is rather telling of the shift in attitude that has taken hold within UKIP since their three Wickford councillors split off and formed the separate Wickford Independents Group. Since then, as UKIP now have no councillors in either Billericay or Wickford, they have become an extremely parochial Basildon New Town grouping and have adopted the same unpleasant and divisive rhetoric as the Labour Group, who also have no seats outside the New Town, which constantly seeks to denigrate Billericay and Wickford and to imply a divide between the New Town south of the A127 and the older settlements north of the 127. The Conservative Group is the only political grouping on Basildon Council with members representing all three major towns of the Borough, both north and south of the arterial.
Councillor Allport-Hodge actually requested that Basildon be re-branded from a ‘New Town’ to a ‘mature town’ (whatever that is) and called for the establishment of Basildon Heritage Trust. It was left to Councillor Blake to gently point out to her that Basildon is now a borough, not a town, that he is concerned with preserving the arts heritage of the entire borough and not just north or south of the A127, and that there is in fact already a Basildon heritage trust (the Basildon Heritage & Museum Group).
Before commencing with the Budget, the Council considered two notices of motion deferred from the December meeting of Full Council. The first was a motion moved by Cllr Gary Canham (U, Pitsea North-West) regarding the ongoing siting of waste facilities by Essex County Council in Basildon, most notably Pitsea. He was seconded by Cllr Mark Ellis (U, Laindon Park), who is also a County Councillor for the Laindon Park & Fryerns county division. This motion was staunchly supported by the Conservative Group, who have long campaigned against such facilities and speakers from our side included Cllr David Dadds (Con, Billericay East), Cllr Amanda Arnold (Con, Pitsea South-East), Cllr Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead – but formerly a Pitsea North-West ward member), Cllr Terri Sargent (Con, Crouch), Cabinet Member for Environment & Community and a former county member herself, Cllr Stephen Hillier (Con, Langdon Hills), a former Cabinet Member for Environment, whose wife, Sandra, was also previously a county councillor for Pitsea, and the Leader of the Council, Cllr Phil Turner (Con, Billericay West). Whilst the Group made it clear we would support Councillor Canham’s motion, his seconder Councillor Ellis nearly talked some of us out of it by implying that Basildon Council had not objected to these sites. Successive speakers were quick to point out that Basildon, since the Tories took Administration, had always objected strenuously to these sites and, indeed, as Councillor Turner put it, had “made something of an art out of cheesing off the County”. UKIP are Johnny Come-lately on this one.
Notable by their complete abject silence were the two Labour members for Pitsea – Labour leader Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West) and Cllr Aidan McGurran (Lab, Pitsea South-East) and also Cllr Melissa McGeorge (Lab, Vange), who is actually one of the county members for the Pitsea division! All three were surprisingly mute on this important subject.
The other motion was from Councillor Allport-Hodge regarding grammar schools. This was rather odd, as it was essentially identical to the motion successfully moved at the December meeting by my colleague Councillor Arnold. We are not normally allowed to debate motions on the same subject but I was not about to raise an objection, as I am always happy to vote in favour of bringing a grammar school to Basildon and, at the December meeting, the debate had been curtailed by the guillotine and it afforded me an opportunity to deliver the speech I would have given then. I was fortunate enough to catch the Mayor’s eye and was called to speak early on in the debate. I shall not repeat my arguments here, luckily a member of the public – one of our regulars, Dr Gibbs, recorded the debate and my speech can be heard and, indeed, seen on YouTube by following this link (my speech commences at 11:55). I will publish a separate article regarding my position on grammar schools.
We then turned to Item 8, which was the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) budget, delivered by the Cabinet Member for Housing & Community Safety, Cllr Anthony Hedley (Con, Billericay West), during which we welcomed the good deal for our social housing tenants, with a 1% reduction in social rents, and also the strides that the Administration is making, with the advent of Sempra Homes, and being the first Council administration in more than two decades to build new council houses. In additional to the new social housing provision, Sempra are building these in conjunction with local developers, who are hiring apprentices locally. The report was responded to, much to everyone’s astonishment, by Cllr Adele Brown (Lab, Fryerns), whom I have since discovered is now Deputy Leader of the Labour Group, Cllr Byron Taylor (Lab, Vange) seeming to have been quietly removed at some point in the New Year. Interestingly, this marked the maiden speech of Councillor Brown, he was first elected to Council in 2012 and is up for re-election in May. After four years, I guess it’s better late than never and she was listened to in a respectful silence (a courtesy, it has to be said, she’s rarely extended to other councillors, for while she’s evidently not fond of making speeches, Councillor Brown has no problem whatsoever chuntering from a sedentary position and heckling throughout every meeting). It’s just such a shame that her first ever speech was so doom-laden.
Of course, the Labour Group voted against the HRA. They dressed this pointless opposition up with a lot of lofty rhetoric about George Osborne being motivated by wanting to run a budget surplus (and what’s wrong with that?). As the Leader pointed out in his response, the 1% cut will come as welcome relief to our social tenants. He conceded it would blow a £20 million hole in our business plan but it is far from disastrous because, whilst it’s clearly not good news but, when you have a Conservative Administration you have that resilience. We have a plan that is sustainable for thirty years. Trimming our sails is business as usual. Councillor Turner also pointed out that he wished the Labour Group had been as passionate when the late Blair/Brown Ministry introduced the ‘negative subsidy’ that Basildon Council had to pay back to Westminster so that they could send it up North.
Cllr David Sheppard (U, Fryerns) made a similarly silly speech on behalf of UKIP, whingeing about alleged ‘waste’ by the Administration, citing, as an example, the money spent on the ‘Basildon Sign’ (which was actually funded by a grant from the EU and didn’t cost the authority a penny), but – as it fast becoming their modus operandi – the UKIP Group decided to abstain, so the HRA was passed. Cllr Kerry Smith (Ind, Nethermayne) also helpfully pointed out that when in a previous year the Administration put forward an HRA that sought to put social rents up, the Labour Group opposed that as well. No consistency.
I will just single out for particular derision the speech by Councillor McGurran, which was a rhetoric-filled diatribe bordering on abuse directed at Councillor Turner. If his foul-mouthed speech was representative of the editorial standards of the Daily Mirror, where he works, that certainly explains the shrinking circulation of that Left-wing fish-wrapper. At one point he actually shouted out a four-letter expletive, which I would say was potentially actionable by the Standards Committee if it were worth the bother. But he’ll lose his seat in May anyway, so it probably isn’t.
We then moved on to the final item of business of the evening, namely the Budget itself, presented by my ward colleague, the Cabinet Member for Resources, Cllr Stuart Sullivan (Con, Billericay East). I had prepared a speech for the occasion but we were hamstrung early on by the fact that we currently have no less than five Opposition leaders, who all get unlimited time to respond to the Budget and any amendments that have been tabled and we had no less than nine such proposed amendments from Labour and UKIP. Sadly, Opposition group leaders very selfishly abused the time allotted to them, in particular the UKIP leader, who waffled tediously for a good half-hour (NB: Honourable mention to the Leader of the Independence from EU Group, Councillor Smith, who only spoke for five minutes). Ironically, all the group leaders said they would keep their remarks “brief” and then spoke for at least quarter-of-an-hour anyway. Sadly, this meant that by the time all the leaders had spoken, we had reached the guillotine and there was not time for a single backbencher to speak, much to the chagrin of members across the chamber. Ultimately, bar the Cabinet Member summing up, the Budget itself and the nine Opposition amendments were all voted on without debate. Nevertheless, I shall seek to say a little now on what was contained in them. I shall also shortly publish in full the speech I would have given.
The headline announcement of Councillor Sullivan’s Budget, his fourth, was a 1.99% increase in the Council Tax. The Conservative Administration is very proud of its record in restraining tax rises and we have previously managed to freeze Council Tax for four years running and in 2011 even delivered a modest cut. But local government has never known the kinds of financial challenges we face today, as Central Government seeks to fulfil its clear manifesto pledge to bring down the deficit. We face significant reductions in funding from Central Government until at least 2020 and will leave us with a significant budget shortfall, so it will be absolutely essential for Basildon Council to continue to make efficiencies and change the ways in which we deliver services for our residents. Nevertheless, this Conservative Administration has a proven track record of prudent financial management and continuing to deliver on ambitious investment projects around the Borough and that will continue. I was particularly pleased to hear my friend announce that £280,000 has been allocated to public realm works in Billericay High Street in my ward – the only town centre in the Borough that has not enjoyed any major investment in recent years. He also announced £20,000 for Hannakins Farm to replace the Astroturf and a further £30,000 to install solar panels to make it more sustainable and self-funding.
I shall just say a little about the Opposition amendments, though I won’t go through all nine, just enough to give you a flavour because they were all emblematical of the economic illiteracy of the both the Labour and UKIP groups. Labour introduced an amendment that sought, once again, to fund Essex County Council (ECC) to reintroduce street lighting overnight, effectively reversing ECC’s ‘Part-Night Lighting’ policy, by cutting, amongst other things, the Council’s Corporate Training and Marketing & Communications (Marcomms) budgets. Ignoring the implication for our hardworking Council officers seeking to oversee regular changes in legislation with no training budget and the impeding of the Council’s ability to communicate with residents, asking our residents to fund streetlights when they already pay ECC to do that is something the Borough Council has voted against before! Basildon residents already pay ECC to provide lighting and Basildon has protested vigorously against their PNL scheme. If we start taxing our residents for it again, ECC will be laughing at us. What next? How long until County Hall start telling us that if we want our potholes filled, we need to pay extra? Essex has already begun backtracking on PNL, so now is not the time to buckle. They also had an amendment to install toilets in Pitsea Town Centre even though The Range have confirmed they will be providing public toilets.
UKIP had a number of trifling amendments, such as a vague commitment to restoring the Free Special Collection Service (which would presumably need to be means tested), compensation for the residents of the Five Links Estate over the renaming and renumbering of streets (completely unprecedented), which they’ve budgeted at £65,000 but with no breakdown. There was also an amendment reallocating £2K to renovate Little Dodden Park, which is something that could easily have been taken to the Cabinet Member and didn’t need to come through a budget amendment.
Apart from economic illiteracy, Labour and UKIP had two other things in common. Firstly, they both had budget amendments seeking to restore funding to two charities, DIAL and Impact. The decision has in fact already been taken by Cabinet and is not, in fact, a ‘cut’, as it’s consistently being called, because the overall grant allocation from the Council remains the same. It is simply now going to be given to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau to avoid duplication and achieve best value for money for our residents (FYI: I sit on as the Borough rep on the board of the Basildon CAB). Also, both Labour and UKIP motions on this failed to reverse the decision, so we would essentially be paying the money to the CAB and then paying additional monies to DIAL and Impact when we have already identified that they are duplicating work. Nevertheless, it was clear that both Opposition groups wanted to fund DIAL and Impact and I think it is just worth pointing out that, in the event, BOTH of these amendments failed. Why? Because Labour and UKIP voted against each other’s respective amendments. Says it all, doesn’t it?
The second thing they both had in common was their petty, divisive, mean-spirited, and frankly spiteful attacks against both Billericay and Wickford. Labour proposed to fund a ‘Local Initiative Fund’ by scrapping the free weekend and Christmas parking in Billericay and Wickford and UKIP, now fully embracing Labour’s divisive rhetoric, had no less than two budget amendments that both sought to scrap our free parking. These vindictive attacks on my residents have been coming from Opposition councillors ever since I’ve been a member of the Council and, as you would expect, I voted against them all. There was a third veiled attack on Billericay in a bizarre amendment from UKIP, which sought to scrap grants for parish councils (even though, oddly, Councillor Allport-Hodge praised the work of parish councils in her rambling speech). I call this an attack on Billericay because Billericay is the only part of the Borough that is completely parished. The only part of the New Town with a parish council is Bowers Gifford & North Benfleet in Pitsea. So, for the most part, this would not effect the residents of Opposition councillors but we have seven parishes north of the arterial, including Billericay Town Council, which received £9K from Basildon Borough Council. This money is specifically paid to compensate parishes who lost out as a result to changes to the Local Council Tax Scheme but not all local authorities pass this money on to their parishes but Basildon always has!
I am pleased to say that, with no time for debate, we zoomed through all nine amendments, voting them done one after the other like dominos and the Budget was then passed. I am a Tory, so always reluctant to vote for a tax rise, but I supported the Budget because Tories balance the books!