BUDGET: Reasonable proposal

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I write in response to your article stating that a row had broken out over the time opposition parties on the council have to object to the budget of the ruling Labour group, (News Guardian, May 31).

The papers for the budget setting meeting show that the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties both put forward objections to the budget presented by the Mayor and cabinet.

In relation to the Conservative proposals, the council sought the advice of its monitoring officer, whose role is to report on the robustness of estimates and adequacy of reserves.

The officer’s advice was that the most significant risks were that central government funding would reduce, that the council would face increasing pressure in adult social care services, that it would face increasing financial pressure in children’s social care, and that its ability to achieve efficiency targets is increasingly challenging.

The Conservative proposals were deemed to present significant risk to the council’s financial position by failing to increase council tax, resulting in the use of reserves. In the view of the officer, such a proposal would bring into question the financial sustainability of the council.

The council also sought independent legal advice from a barrister. His judgement was that the Conservative proposals should have taken into account the longer-term financial planning requirements of the council, rather than a budget balanced only in respect of the coming financial year.

No financial or legal advice was considered necessary in relation to the objection from the Liberal Democrats.

If the council needs to bring in external legal and financial expertise, as appears to have been the case, then asking for two working days’ notice, as opposed to the current six hours, in which to assess objections does not seem unreasonable.

The Conservative leader is quoted as saying that the new system will hurt the ability of opposition parties to scrutinise the budget, and queries how objections and opposition party proposals can be accurately put together if the new rules are approved. She doesn’t explain why six hours’ notice is preferable to allowing two working days’ notice for the raising of objections.

The council’s budget setting meeting is an important debate that has implications for all of us who live in the borough. You may or may not agree politically with the Labour party, but from a democratic perspective, it controls the council and we have to trust it to get on with it.

Although the council’s budget is presented by councillors, it is compiled by officers with the requisite financial and legal qualifications. It is not clear to what extent opposition councillors had access to financial or legal expertise when producing their objections.

There will have been a cost to the taxpayer of bringing in a top QC to comment on the proposals from the Conservatives, but that is a separate debate for another day.

Jean McLaughlin