South Gloucestershire’s ruling Conservative councillors last night voted down a string of proposals to save council services that are under threat – without speaking to justify what they were doing. This extraordinary display of disengagement from democratic debate shocked the public, with one objective commentator from the press gallery tweeting:
“2 hours in & of 40 Conservative councillors only 1, the leader, has spoken on the ruling party’s budget. Gagging order?”
The budget meeting included four debates and four votes on amendments that would have safeguarded services currently under threat – one moved by the Liberal Democrats and three by Labour. Conservative councillors sat impassively as a succession of opposition councillors put their case, and then voted each one down.
The amendments would have diverted an annual £230,000 away from the Tories’ pet project of cheaper green bin subscriptions and into other services. Two votes were taken to move this money: first to the youth service, and when that fell, to the library service which is facing a £630,000 savings target that would leave the majority open for just two days a week. No Conservative other than their leader justified their vote, and he told the meeting that this was a Conservative manifesto pledge and that they had won the election.
The other two votes were first on a Labour proposal to spend a small amount of the projected seven-figure overall surplus on reversing cuts to welfare hardship grants, 9 Police Community Support Officers, economic development work in Kingswood and reducing the cuts to the youth service. The second was on a Labour proposal to block a Conservative move to tear up the existing cross-party deal to pay the council’s lowest-paid workers at the Living Wage Foundation pay rate. On both the Conservative councillors sat through the debates in silence and then voted down the proposals.
Those witnessing this ongoing silence grew increasingly frustrated by the Conservatives’ behaviour. Labour councillor Martin Farmer tweeted:
“Really surprised (or not really) at lack of conviction from #Southglos Tories – only the leader has spoken during important budget debate”
Speaking after the meeting, Labour Group’s Leader on the Council, Councillor Pat Rooney, said:
“In over 20 years in local government I have never witnessed such a display of disengagement from democratic debate. Members of the public came to speak in support of existing services, and opposition councillors put forward a string of positive proposals and outlined in detail why they should be accepted. We all faced a wall of Tories who were dead to any argument. It is shocking that they were not prepared to argue their own case, presumably because it is so weak and hard to justify.
It is tragic that the Tories have wilfully spent ‘transitional’ money which the government says is meant ‘to ease the pace of reductions’ on prioritising a 50p per month cut in the green bin subscription at the cost of current valued services. Labour offered them the opportunity to spend this money on reducing the threat to our libraries instead, and they chose not to do so.”