The city council’s budget was voted through late on Thursday after almost five hours of bitter exchanges across the Guildhall between Labour and Lib Dem councillors.
Labour’s finance chief Cllr George Owers called it “the most comprehensive review of our finances for many years” as he outlined headline plans to invest the council’s sizeable reserves in areas such as commercial property.
“Rather than merely scrimping through from year to year, putting in budget plans on a temporary basis, this is a budget for the future, a three-year budget which really gives us a comprehensive way forward to protect our frontline services,” said Cllr Owers.
Council leader Cllr Lewis Herbert called Cllr Owers a “financial bloodhound” and queried why, when the Lib Dems had been in charge, the council leader had prepared the budget, instead of having a councillor specifically in charge of finance.
But Lib Dem leader Cllr Tim Bick accused Labour of “taking their eye off what is important to the public”.
He added: “Instead of championing these priorities, the ruling group seems to have slipped remarkably fast on to a corporate agenda, insulating yourselves from what everyone else thinks is important.”
As well as a new investment plan, the new budget proposes spending on anti-poverty measures such as rent relief for Cambridge City Foodbank, a Citizens Advice Bureau adviser at East Barnwell’s GP surgery, a junior savers project, and free swimming lessons for disadvantaged children.
It will also fund a domestic violence co-ordinator.
Independent Cllr John Hipkin said: “This is a budget to be welcomed. To have a budget which can give a high degree of security for the next three years is something quite extraordinary in the present climate.
“They perhaps inherited an overcautious operation. I think the more adventurous approach to investments and making assets count is highly justifiable,
“But one regret I have tonight is we do not have a budget which is consensual. I do not think all the merit lies on one side.”
The council voted to raise council tax by 1.99 per cent – the maximum allowed without the need for a referendum.
Lib Dem Cllr Andrea Reiner called a proposed £100,000 ‘maternity fund reduction in funding’ “a recipe for disaster” after an assessment found it may lead to managers being reluctant to offer jobs to certain candidates. Labour says a £75,000 central reserve remains along with further provision in departmental budgets, and that relevant HR policies are in place. Cllr Lewis Herbert also accused the Lib Dems of making “completely false claims and scaremongering” over the issue.
Cllr Tim Bick accused Labour of making “a below-the-radar addition to the council’s PR team” over the new corporate information assistant role. Cllr John Hipkin said: “This city council is a big organisation, it’s got responsibilty for a lot of social policy, it’s responsible for the growth of one of the most dynamic cities in Europe. We need to explain to the public the processes we’re going through.”
Lib Dems criticised an additional £34,500 to fund trade union activities, saying this was already well funded compared with other councils of similar sizes in the region. But Labour’s Cllr Nigel Gawthrope said trade unions were important in the context of such seismic change in local government. Trade unions have donated around £10,000 to the Cambridge Labour party since May 2010.
Capital plan changes
Labour has created a new ‘projects under development’ list for the council’s capital plan, which it said was bloated and plagued by delays. It says projects can be kept on this list while firm proposals are prepared. But the Lib Dems accused Labour of double standards over the requirements for projects on the capital plan, with Cllr Mike Pitt saying he feared this new list was a place where projects wouold be “quietly cut”.
Investments and reserves
Labour plans to invest £24.5 million in a combination of investments, including £8 million on commercial property and £10 million in a specific fund for churches, charities and local authorities (CCLA). Lib Dems expressed reservations about the risk of the CCLA fund, while their major budget intervention called for £12 million to be invested in a scheme for 100 affordable and social homes at Mill Road depot. Labour said this was unworkable in the proposed timescale and that it planned on investing in housing through other means.
Living wage policy
The Lib Dems wanted to set aside £30,000 to incentivise council contractors to pay the living wage. Labour’s Cllr George Owers said he “didn’t want to see the council set a precedent that we will always be prepared to subsidise the private sector”.
Automated phone calls
Labour plans on saving £50,000 by switching to “self-service telephony and electronic enquiry services”, saying a lot officers’ time is currently spent transferring people to the right department. But Lib Dem Cllr Tim Bick said these systems left people frustrated, especially when they had to go through a list of options.
Labour has cut 25 per cent from the council’s community grants pot, which Lib Dem Cllr Rod Cantrill said was being short-termist given the value voluntary groups provide. Cllr Ysanne Austin also said the cuts disproportionately affected ethnic minority groups. But Labour says it has protected and even boosted funding to the most valuable groups, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau.
Labour plans to stop paying Cambridgeshire Constabulary £51,000 each year, saying it is not allocated to a specific purpose and that other authorities in the county have stopped paying it. But the Lib Dems say a lack of policing is a key area for residents at the city’s area committees.