Thursday night was Basildon Council’s Budget-setting meeting
As is customary, the Conservative Opposition moved a fully-costed Alternative Budget, ably moved, as ever, by my ward colleague, Cllr Stuart Sullivan (Con, Billericay East).
Stuart works incredibly diligently in preparing our Alternative Budget, liaising directly with the Council’s Chief Financial Officer (known as the Section 151 Officer) since November to produce a verifiable, implementable alternative budget signed off by the 151 Officer as sustainable.
I would have liked to congratulate Stuart on a job well done. In light of all the hardship caused by the pandemic, it is absolutely right – and a fundamental Conservative principle – that we should seek to be ambitious in reducing the tax burden on all our residents. A 2% cut in Council Tax, putting more money back in people’s pockets, was the right call. Likewise, keeping any rise in social rents in line with inflation and rejecting Labour’s outrageous above inflation rent hike on our council tenants. It is amazing – given how socialists like to characterise themselves, and how they like to caricature Tories! – that it is repeatedly left to Conservative councillors to fight the corner of social tenants against Labour’s punitive rent hikes.
I would also have appreciated an opportunity to reiterate my support for our ongoing commitment to additional policing for Basildon Borough. It was the previous Conservative Administration led by Andy Baggott (and it was wonderful to see him back at the helm following his recent illness), of which Stuart and I were both members, that put its money where its mouth is on law and order and made an agreement with our colleague, the Police Commissioner Roger Hirst, to put in place funding for three additional police officers dedicated to this borough and, unlike Labour, make this a sustainable and ongoing commitment in the budget rather than a one-off electoral gimmick, only funded for a year (like too many provisions in Labour’s budgets).
He and I both know from our conversations with residents, not just in Billericay but across the entire Borough, that paucity of available parking is a huge daily problem for many of our residents, causing much stress and disagreements between neighbours. So I was grateful that our Alternative Budget included funding for a much-needed borough-wide feasibility study to look at ways of maximising parking provision and create more parking spaces for residents.
Alas, I was not able to make any of these points because, despite the Mayor indicating that I was next on the list to speak, he passed me over. Later, when I indicated to speak again, I was cut off by the Leader of the Council, who moved a motion that ‘the question now be put’ – a procedural device used explicitly for the purposes of curtailing debate and moving straight to the vote (which, because he has a majority, he can easily pass).
Why was it, I wonder, that the Labour Mayor and the Leader of the Council did not want to hear what I had to say? I am sure it could not have had anything to do with my Zoom background, which on this occasion – in solidarity with my friends and neighbours in Laindon and Lee Chapel North – was a picture of the threatened Laindon Community Centre.
I was extremely gratified that the Conservative Alternative Budget included a firm commitment on Laindon Community Centre – and to our other community halls around the Borough. During his speech, the Labour Leader made some wild and wholly unsubstantiated allegations, calling our community centres “death traps”. A clear ratcheting up of rhetoric to make people believe our community halls are suddenly somehow ‘unsafe’ and need to be torn down – and replaced with WHAT, I wonder! Yet more flatted developments, perchance? Who can say?
The Conservatives are absolutely clear that we will invest in renovations and repairs to community halls and see them re-open. In the case of Laindon Community Centre, this must happen as soon as possible; safely, of course, but as soon as possible.
For many people, their local community centre is the hub of their social contact, which many of them have been denied due to the pandemic. Waiting for planning and construction for a new building in Laindon, would be like extending lockdown for that community. It cannot happen and Conservatives will not allow it to happen. Of course we should consult Laindoners about what they want and should deliver their vision but we are clear that such a consultation should take place once the centre is back open, functioning, and restoring a bit of normality to those peoples lives.
As ever, the Conservative Alternative Budget is one that did not indulge in imposing some grandiose vision – one that is inflicted on residents against their wishes rather than derived from them and delivered for them. Stuart Sullivan’s budget addressed the bread and butter issues that matter to residents and it had my full support.
But, as was expected, Labour and their so-called ‘Independent’ lackeys voted it down. So let me say a little about the 2021/2 Budget that was moved by Cllr Gavin Callaghan (Lab, Pitsea North-West) and ultimately passed by Full Council on Thursday, and which I voted against.
It was delivered with much aplomb, as you would expect. There is no denying that Councillor Callaghan knows how to make a good speech. He always does. Nobody can deny that he is articulate and fluent and sounds very impressive, I dare say, to people who haven’t heard it all before. But I’ve been around the block a few times now.
Our Leader, Andy Baggott, was right when he said “snake oil is still snake oil” and called Councillor Callaghan’s budget “a budget of the ego”. The vision being outlined by this Labour-led Administration might carry more weight were it not quite so incredible. Incredible in the sense that it was made up of so many disingenuous half-truths, distortions and outright myths, such as the ongoing lies about a ‘congestion charge’ on the A127 (which he knows is a lie) and, even more amazing, an alleged nefarious Tory plot for ‘monthly bin collections’. That allegation might have been more believable if, later in the meeting, the Conservatives had not voted against an amendment proposed by an Independent to introduce fortnightly bin collections, which Labour ended up actually supporting. If we won’t vote in favour of dropping from weekly to fortnightly – and I certainly never will! – residents can probably take it as read that will never support monthly bin collections. The very idea is preposterous.
Then there are the numerous omissions from the Labour budget. Previous promises of a bus service for Laindon have vanished. At one point, Councillor Callaghan was talking about planting hundreds of tress. I’m sorry? Two years ago he said he would plant a million trees in a year. It seems a bit late to try to manage expectations now.
He also included a number of recycled announcements, both from his own previous budgets and also cribbed from ours – these cold collations were then microwaved and plonked in front of us as though they were prime porterhouse. He gleefully re-announced the Pitsea swimming pool we planned to build in Eversley; a project they have failed to progress in the two years they have been in power. He also re-announced our extra police.
He then repeated a whole raft of things that he has merely ‘announced’ over the years and pronounced them as ‘delivered’. I mean, that is clever that, isn’t it? I like that. Like that 5,000-seat ‘Basildon Arena’. That’s been delivered, apparently. Not a single brick has been laid but it’s been ‘delivered’. This is positively Trumpian; like the Mexican border wall. We are in a post-truth era of Basildon politics.
Another big headline item that successive Administration councillors chose to major on was the much-vaunted ‘Youth Zone’. This is basically going to be another hugely expensive building in Basildon Town Centre, full of youth services that already exist all around the Borough. This boondoggle, however well-meaning and whatever the good intentions behind it, is going to cost tens of millions to build and represents an enormous financial exposure to the taxpayer of nearly £1 million in ongoing annual running costs if things go wrong.
But leaving aside for a moment the hard-nosed arguments around cost. My major problem with the Youth Zone is that it is yet another centralised hub. I remember, not that long ago, when Fryerns and Vange libraries were in the crosshairs. Fortunately, colleagues at County Hall saw sense and those libraries were saved but I remember at the time something that was said by Cllr Aidan McGurran (Lab, Vange), who is a noisy and aggressive advocate for the Youth Zone. He said at the time, in reference to the Main Library in Basildon, that for ‘poor kids in Vange’, it “might as well be on the Moon”. He did not think that poor youngsters from Vange would travel into Basildon Town Centre to use the Library. And, do you know what? I agreed with him. So why does he think they will travel into Basildon to use a multi-million pound ‘Youth Zone’ that they have to pay to use? It is utter madness and it will do absolutely nothing for young people outside of Basildon Town, in Laindon or Pitsea, Billericay or Wickford. For them, indeed, it might as well be on the Moon.
Conservatives reject the basic premise of Labour’s argument. We have great local youth services in Basildon – grassroots organisations, charitable organisations, many of them staffed by volunteers. Instead of spending countless millions on some swanky new building in the Town Centre, why not support them? Let us take a million quid out of this project – even half a million – and give it to Carla Andrews MBE at Motivated Minds. I would trust her to put it to better use than anything the Council could dream up. That is why, in our Alternative Budget, we wanted to fund two dedicated Youth Outreach officers to work directly with these groups and we were going to give them £100K for direct grants to youth organisations. Why do socialists always think the organs of the State can do anything better than those people in the coalface who are already working their butts off?
This is classic Labour. Attack every problem with a posh, expensive building, so they can go along and cut a ribbon and feel like they have ‘acheived’ something. Councillor Callaghan is like his idol, Tony Blair, building a Milennium Dome for Basildon, with no clue what it is for or why. As long as it is reassuringly expensive, he is happy to build it and call that a legacy. A new Laindon Community Centre, a new Youth Zone, a new Arena, new tower blocks for the Town Centre. He is the Basildon Ozymandias, with every brick stamped with his name.
On Thursday, the Council passed a vanity budget. It is reckless where it should be more circumspect and timid where it ought to have been more ambitious. It is a budget of the ego, not a budget for the people. It did not have my support, it did not get my vote and, come the elections in May, we shall see whose vision for Basildon is the one the people really share.