The June 2012 Policy & Resources meeting or how Labour & Tories connived to campaign against bus cuts they voted for

This week saw the first full meeting of Policy & Resources committee under the new system of decision making on Brighton & Hove City Council.

There were many important issues on the agenda including revising the corporate plan for the next year and agreeing a letter to government in support of equal marriage proposals. You can read the full agenda here.

However the vast majority of the meeting and the interest was focussed on two reports. The first was the final budget update on the last financial year which ended this April. This showed that in its first year the Green administration had, despite biting government funding cuts, been able to carefully manage the council to a £4.37m underspend. This was good news as it gives us a bit of flexibility in dealing with the unexpected. But context is important as this amounts to being just 2% off a fully balanced budget (one that was neither under nor overspent), so not much in the grand scheme of a large council like ours.

Much of the report was on the detailed management and accounting logistics needed when projects run over two financial years with grants needing to be carried forward. It also noted that we achieved £7.53m in savings from the Value for Money Programme in the last year. Which rather took the wind out of the sails of the opposition who had been focussed on attacking Greens for being reckless, idealistic and unable to manage things.

So of course rather than acknowledging the the first year’s finances had gone well (and I should admit a personal interest here having been the Cabinet Member for Finance in that year!) they took a new tack by attacking the underspend.

Now most of that underspend, £3.187m to be precise, was already spent in the February budget-setting meeting to help with the budget year we are now in. The opposition were more than happy to raid it for their amendments back then. This left £1.183m to be allocated at the committee this week.

It is important to note that this underspend is one-off money, it’s not a recurring amount we can count on each year like income from rents or council tax. So when it’s spent, that’s it. Our report proposed leaving £521k to cover costs relating to Saltdean Lido and to help with unexpected pressures in the 2013/14 budget-setting.

Then we sought to put £662k into a number of areas (full details are at the bottom of this document) including one year cover for a childcare service associated with Brighton Womens’ Centre until a new government funding stream comes through and funding to support the huge number of events we will be seeing in the city this summer. Vitally we allocated £150k to fund a bid for £5m in government grants to get ultrafast broadband in the city. We hope to tie this in with free wifi in the city and continuing to support the high growth digital sector we are lucky to have. Unfortunately there are some very complex legalities associated with the bidding process, which is why need to put money aside for it, but it will deliver huge benefits for the city’s economic future.

Our long term thinking vs opposition’s short termism

We also allocated £250k for projects including automatic water metering and energy audits of key council buildings. These projects will be led by the sustainability team and help us meet our One Planet Council targets, but ultimately they save us money. With pilot work in the Brighton Centre we’ve already saved the council tens of thousands by changing how energy and water are used.

Regardless of the good sense of these plans, unfortunately the opposition decided these were ‘pet’ or ‘vanity’ projects and sought to attack them suggesting saving money and resources, and the economic development of our city, were unnecessary distractions. Personally I want to see a vibrant, digital city and I would rather be spending council funds on positive things than wasted water and heat!

Labour councillors proposed an amendment to take all the money from the sustainability projects and spend it on buses apart from £24k on the Mobile Library. This related to their amendment to the budget in February which only partially funded a new Mobile Library back then. They’ve been hoping someone else will step in to fund the gap in their amendment, but so far we’ve had no offers. The one-off £24k they sought in the amendment was still not enough (it’s recurring annual budget we’re short of) and we cannot buy a new mobile vehicle if there’s no annual budget to run it – that would be utterly irresponsible.

The sum for the bus budget was also unable to make much of a difference because we were about to be debating a 4 year contract which a one-off sum of £226k Labour wanted to throw in didn’t make much sense, but more on that in a moment.

The Labour amendment, despite Tory support fell. But rather than vote for the positive items in this budget report such as on ultrafast broadband, childcare, summer events and so on all the Tory and Labour councillors voted against the report so I used my casting vote as chair to ensure it passed.

The bus issue

So, as colleagues have explained on this blog post, we had to review subsidised bus contracts. The government has cut its support to bus operators by 20%, fuel prices have increased and councils have had their budgets cut substantially by government.

Even if we had been able to keep our budget unchanged, the increased costs bus operators were experiencing meant we’d have only ever been able to afford to support fewer bus services. But sadly we had to reduce our budget. Why? Ultimately because the central government are cutting council funding harder and faster than for any other part of government.

In spite of the scale of the cuts, we sought to take a much smaller reduction from the bus subsidy budget than other areas of the council budget, because we know how important buses are. At the budget council meeting this February both Labour and Tory groups presented an array of amendments – none of which sought to change our proposals on the bus subsidy budget. Furthermore all the opposition councillors very unusually voted for the whole budget including the unamended bus subsidy section.

They absurdly claimed this week that this didn’t mean they supported everything they had voted for: if you don’t support something don’t vote for it! Opposition groups usually abstain on the council budget and they could have done again so this February.

So let us be absolutely clear that both Labour and Tory groups voted for these reductions in the bus subsidy budget. Then both leaders of the opposition groups more recently had the offer of one-on-one briefings with the officers on this topic. Additionally they attended a meeting that I chaired with officers to review the draft agenda for this week’s Policy & Resources committee.

They were even shown extra print-outs of all the bus route data and tendering process at that meeting. Did they ask a single question, raise any concerns or seek to amend any of the reports? No, they had absolutely nothing to say, they agreed that the papers should proceed to publication.

If they were genuinely concerned about the principle, the detail or the process they had been given many opportunities to do something about the bus subsidies, but they didn’t. However in the last few days suddenly they have decided to “save the buses” and continue now, such as with this Labour online post.

Let’s call their behaviour what it is – cynical positioning to seek political capital. Their amendments, as the copious notes from the Finance Director showed, were highly problematic and short-termist (see here and here). Robbing good spend-to-save plans such as on water usage to show that they wanted to be seen to save the buses, in ways they knew couldn’t and wouldn’t succeed. Major procurements are difficult and complex procedures which cannot be altered by amendments submitted on the morning of a meeting. Again, when they had so much notice of what was happening why did they not prepare amendments earlier?

We have sought to cause the minimum harm possible in the face of cuts and inflation. So while other authorities are slashing millions from supported bus routes, and some counties are seeing 47 schools lose services, we kept it to a minimum with less than 0.33% of passenger journeys affected. Overall less than 2% of all routes in the city are subsidised, but we ranked them all to ensure those we did stop supporting would cause these least harm possible.

School routes are particularly difficult to arrange. They are costly, the 96 which was the source of some controversy this week would be costing us each year about £1,000 per child plus the parents were paying £240 a year for a pass. Most big operators aren’t interested in running school buses which are just one way in the morning, once, and a single-homeward trip. But we have been saying for months, I note including at the Budget Scrutiny meetings this January, that we are reviewing all school transport options. I said it again at the meeting this week. Not all school transport has to be by a large bus with a route number associated. Only those big spending routes need to go through the procurement we discussed at committee this week.

There are other options for transport, which we will keep discussing with parents, children, schools and providers. But of course people were understandably very concerned and if the service that runs by your home is affected, that it is only one of 0.33% is small comfort. It is also worth keeping in mind that in the past commercial operators have sought to continue some services even when the subsidy ended, because they found a way to make it commercially viable. So the end of a subsidy does not always mean the end of a route.

It was a difficult meeting and I take no pride or pleasure in moving these challenging items forward. The government is intent of forcing communities into fighting over scant resources, which is so damaging to our resilience and sense of collective wellbeing. Even the Tory chair of the Local Government Association recently called some of the cuts to councils “impossible”.

I know that Greens are working hard to manage our city as sensitively and responsibly as possible in the face of the austerity agenda we oppose. But what pains me most is how Tory and Labour councillors cheapened the debate with their empty posturing. They had every chance to do something more about this if they really cared, and their respective governments too. Of course we’re not going to always agree, but the public deserve informed debate not last minute posturing. Transport is a difficult issue for our city, and the council is only one part of the picture. I intend to keep working with everyone to find the best, sustainable and affordable solutions possible in these tough times.

7 thoughts on “The June 2012 Policy & Resources meeting or how Labour & Tories connived to campaign against bus cuts they voted for”

  1. Good Blog Jason,
    Any chance this can be summarised and submitted to the Argus. It would help counter some of the negative press the GP gets.

    Michael

  2. I attended the meeting and was saddened but not surprised to see the cosy agreement between the Tories and Labour. Some of the things said about the One Planet Living policy which is trying to actually take action on climate change were pathetic – when a forward looking project which addresses the major challenges facing us all is characterised as a “pet project” one does it is difficult not to it is difficult to take such politicians serioulsy. Of course the cancellation of some bus routes is highly regrettable , and the last thing we want is children being taken to school by car , but surely there must be a better way of getting them to school other than using large buses only twice a day . Having said that there were serious questions that needed addressing at the meeting and which to my mind did not receive an adequate response . Regarding the i 360 for example , I cannot understand why a Council strapped for cash is prepared to take the risk of loaning a vast amount of public money to a private concern for an uncertain project when the banks have refused . Similarly I am puzzled by the determinantion to refurbish the Regency car park. This is never going to be a heavily used car park – and anyway if the idea is to encourage people to come into the city by other means than the car , why are scarce funds being used to do something which is not necessary and which , if it works, can only encourage people to drive into the city. There’s a contradiction in all that and none of it seems very sustainable to me …..

  3. Regarding the “£150k to fund a bid for £5m in government grants to get ultrafast broadband in the city”, I was recently quoted about £750/month for uncontended synchronous 100Mb/s which sounds costly but could be shared across ~100 users who’d retain the speed advantage, albeit in bursts, and might even deliver useable VOIP..

    So I guess my question is, what will you get for £150k/£5M that can’t be bought on the current market for less than £10/user/month? I agree my alternative requires organisation and cooperation, but maybe that’s what a council (like Hull) could do?

  4. Jason – you talk about the ‘austerity agenda we oppose’, yet your 2010 manifesto commitment was – ‘we accept that Government borrowing of 12% of GDP is unsustainable. Like the Government we would aim to more than halve the deficit by 2013′ (I think 12% might be a typo – but it is in the document). Later on you say that your manifesto would – ‘almost eliminate the deficit by the end of this Parliament’. Of course you would have had different priorities – like abolishing Trident and raising the overall tax take from 36% to 45%, but you accepted the principle that the deficit should be eliminated – so hardly opposed to austerity, just implementing austerity differently.

  5. Michael W – Thanks for your comments. We will keep putting these kinds of messages to the media including The Argus, but ultimately they choose what to publish!

    Joyce — Thanks for the feedback on the meeting. On the i360 they were not refused by banks – they had offers which get withdrawn because the banks got into trouble because of the Goldman Sachs-triggered crisis. More than half the funding comes from equity funders, including reputable ethical investors. The best independent analysis backs the visitor estimates – and the commercial basis for our loan to them will produce £500k per year we hope to help support services in tough times.

    Regency Square Car Park is just one of those things – somebody decided a long time ago that a car park there would be a good idea. Not great in my view. But it’s a council asset which is in need of work. The refurbishment business case means the income will more than cover the costs whilst improving it significantly for residents and businesses who suffer from anti-social behaviours situated in the car park.

    Tom — Not all of the city can get that kind of offering, there are areas which can’t even get 2Mb/s so part of the project is lifting the whole city. But I’m also keen to see a unique offer for the city so like 250Mb/s or more at least in key areas of the city. We are still bottoming out everything that’s possible but we would only spend the money on something new which wouldn’t otherwise be available.

    Martin C — Deficit reduction over a full economic cycle is not the same thing as austerity and I’m very surprised that you would try to suggest they are linked. Austerity is about swingeing cuts to public services in an attempt to balance the books. It doesn’t work, particularly when we see the failure of economic demand we have now. So I reject your suggestion, we do not support austerity but we would of course seek to manage the public finances responsibly, just as we are doing here locally.

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