City council leader defends lack of budget debate as anger grows among Peterborough’s opposition leaders

The Conservative leader of Peterborough City Council John Holdich has defended the lack of a full debate on the authority’s budget plans at a meeting this week in the face of mounting anger from opposition councillors.

Friday, 5th March 2021, 1:38 pm
The online Full Council meeting on March 3.
The online Full Council meeting on March 3.

Cllr David Seaton, Cabinet Member for Resources, had asked his fellow councillors to approve the Medium-Term Financial at wednesday night’s (March 3) full council meeting.
Talks had taken place between opposition group leaders ahead of the meeting and it is understood that in return for the acceptance of a number of amendments opposition councillors would ‘abstain’ therefore allowing the budget to pass. However, at the full council meeting opposition councillors were incensed when their call for a debate on the budget was denied.

Cllr Shaz Nawaz, Leader of the Labour Group said: “I’ve been a councillor for a number of years now, and I’ve never seen anything as undemocratic as what happened at Full Council here in Peterborough this week.

“The magnitude of what was done mustn’t be lost on the people of Peterborough because to deny proper and considered debate over something as important as the budget is not only undemocratic, but will make the people of this city wonder what it is the Tories have to hide?

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“I admit that I was genuinely surprised when I was contacted by Cllr Seaton to say that they would allow the cross-party amendments to the budget to be included.

“But they’re good amendments, and I believe they stand on their own merits.

“There was certainly no talk of allowing them in exchange for no debate on the budget.

“The budget is such an integral part of Peterborough’s present and future, that it must be scrutinised properly – that is the whole point of opening it up for debate before it is approved.

“On budget day three years ago this March, I warned the chamber that we were facing a financial crisis and that selling-off assets to balance the budget was not a solution. We need a robust plan to deliver future budget gaps and we need to start on that plan now and not last minute.

“What the Tories would have the people of Peterborough believe is that they’ve produced some kind of a miracle, balancing the budget with free cash hand-outs from central government.

“This simply isn’t true. Cllr Seaton tries to disguise it by calling it a favour from the government because they checked our books and were happy with everything they saw. Why would we need millions in loans if we were doing well? Our support grant has been cut and it’s been replaced with a burdensome loan.

“But what we have here is simply a huge loan of up to £24.8m that will need to be paid back with interest of circa £650K per annum.

“That money has to come from somewhere, and it’s the tax payers of Peterborough who will have to find the additional cash.

“It’s a bit like the man who goes down to the corner loan shark and cashes his wage cheque. Now he has money in his pocket, he thinks all his troubles are over… but when it comes to Friday payday, and the cash is all spent, he suddenly finds his wages go straight to the loan shark, he has no money, and worse, he now owes the loan shark interest on the cash advance that he took.
“This is no way to run a council.

“Had we been given our right to debate the matter at Full Council, these and other ‘hidden’ issues would have been raised and discussed.”
Cllr Nick Sandford, Leader of the LibDems had been very vocal during the Full Council meeting itself, going as far as to question the impartiality of Mayor, Cllr Gul Nawaz whose decision to deny further debate of the budget, led to much of the argument that followed.
Tweeting after the meeting, Cllr Sandford said: “I have been a councillor for 25 years, but never seen anything like that.
“First step on the road to dictatorship. I have never seen members of the LibDem Group so angry. A shameful evening for Peterborough City Council.”
“[Cllr David] Seaton spoke for 15 minutes but no other councillors allowed to speak.
“And then they [the Conservatives] passed a motion to make it even more difficult for councillors to submit motions on important issues.
“ The fact they won’t allow any debate on their budget is appalling and highly suspicious. What are they trying to hide?”
After the meeting, Cllr Sandford was just as angry and added: “I’ve never come across anything like this before and I’ve never seen members of the LibDem Group, who are usually part of that ‘British reserve’, so angry, frustrated and upset by a single decision.
“Like Cllr Nawaz, I was a little surprised when I was informed that [Cllr David] Seaton was allowing our cross-party amendments into their budget.
“But I never once suspected the price we would have to pay was a virtual gagging order in the online chamber.

“Heaven knows what the people of Peterborough who were watching the live stream must think of their councillors after this.

“Had we had the chance to debate the budget then yes, I agree, there is every probability it would’ve been approved.

“But the right to debate is fundamental, and there for exactly the reasons laid out in the constitution giving all parties a platform to point out the bits of the budget that work, and those that don’t.

“What the Conservatives have done is to give the city a balanced budget, but only by borrowing millions and millions of pounds at extortionate interest rates, all of which will need to be paid back for years to come by the people of Peterborough – people whose voices were silenced last night because their elected representatives were not allow to speak up in their name.

“Balancing the books by going cap-in-hand to the government for a £20m loan is not the way to do business.

“What’s even worse, we might not be allowed to use all of the £20m. We can only have an initial £13m of it; we then have to go back and beg to be allowed to use the other £7m if we get into trouble.

“I did call out to the Mayor, Cllr Gul Nawaz last night as I believe his position of impartiality was compromised in the decisions that he made.

“He’s a Tory, and we know they have to follow the whip. Unfortunately, there’s no method currently within the standing orders of the council for a vote of no confidence to be called against the Mayor; but it was clear from the vote that followed where his allegiance lay.

“I was absolutely disgusted and ashamed, and I still am. It was a very sad evening for Peterborough City Council.”
Cllr Julie Howell, Leader of the Greens was equally appalled, tweeting: “Cowardly, really. It feels like we’re not allowed to scrutinise, and if we do get a word in then personal insults are thrown at us.

“Tonight, was an embarrassment. I sat with my head in my hands afterwards and asked myself ‘what is the point?’.”

After the meeting, Cllr Howell said: “There was no hint of impartiality in Mayor, Cllr Gul Nawaz.

“The decision to deny councillors the right to debate on something as important as the budget speaks volumes for the way the Conservatives look at the people of Peterborough.

“Had we been given the chance to debate I had additional points that I wanted to raise, some of them about the climate issues that face us and others about the amendment to the budget that my colleague. Cllr Nicola Day had proposed.

“These are important issues and they stand on their own merit, so yes, it did come as something of a surprise when we were informed by the Conservatives that our amendments were to be included in the budget package.

“But there was never any discussion of exchanging them for the right to debate being withdrawn, something we would never have considered or sanctioned.

“We had agreed that we would listen to the budget proposal from Cllr Seaton and then abstain from voting, thereby allowing the proposal to be approved. I cannot tell you how shocked, upset and then angry I was when the call for debate was denied.

“I’m very serious about my politics and I went into public service genuinely believing that I could do some good, to bring to the attention of the people the green cause and do those things which we Greens hold very dear to our hearts.

“What we saw on the night was an abuse of that – it was undemocratic and irresponsible, and I have to now call into question what the Conservatives have to hide.

“Unlike some parties, we Greens try to go into a debate without having made a prior decision as to which way we will vote.

“I genuinely believed that we would debate the budget, its merits and its flaws.
“None of that happened on the night, and yet again the voices of the women councillors, many of whom I know wanted to speak, were completely silenced.”

In response, retiring Leader of the Council, Cllr John Holdich OBE, said: “The sequence of events leading up to the Full Council meeting, I believe, explains everything.

“On January 7, I wrote to the Leaders of the opposition parties asking them to partake in cross-party budget discussions but on  January 15, they refused.

“That same day I wrote to them again, saying ‘What can I do to make you reconsider and join in these discussions?’, but I got no reply.

“On February 12, I wrote to them again as a gesture of good management proposing that we discuss any issues they had with respect to the budget, but I only got one reply from the Labour Group.

“On February 22, the Scrutiny Panel met for three hours to discuss any matter that any member of the opposition may have to the budget or, to put forward any amendments they wished.

“We had some discussion and they did put forward a couple of amendments, but I asked again if anybody had anything they wanted to discuss further or question, and the answer was ‘no’.

“Finally, on February 23, the Cabinet met to discuss the budget and the amendments the opposition had put forward; we agreed that we would include these amendments as it had taken long enough to get any kind of response from the other sides, and that was it.

“In order to put Peterborough first, we agreed as a Group that we would include their amendments, even though they really didn’t make that much sense.

“They’d been given ample time to discuss the budget, to discuss any changes that they wanted, to give us indications of what they wanted to say; but apart from a couple of silly amendments, we have been met with a wall of silence.

“So, we get to 3 March, budget day, Cllr Seaton makes his presentation to the Full Council, and the next thing we hear the opposition now want to debate the matter.

“What other possible debate could there be in one evening that we hadn’t already discussed or offered to them over the previous two months?

“I know what they wanted to do. They wanted another chance to have a go at slagging the government off for not giving us enough money.

“But seriously, we’d given them plenty of opportunities to debate whatever elements of the budget they wanted to, but nothing had been said.

“Now they’re bringing into the argument that Mayor, Cllr Gul Nawaz has somehow acted inappropriately and followed the Conservative whip.

“I find these allegations particularly distasteful as Mayor Nawaz followed standing orders consistently all evening as he has done throughout his tenure as Mayor of Peterborough.

“The people of Peterborough need to know that this is not what the opposition are making it out to be. They were given ample opportunity over a number of meetings and over an eight-week period to put forward or even indicate any matters in relation to the budget that they felt required discussion.

“Instead, they not only refused to join a cross-party budget meeting, but in most cases refused or ignored my pleas to them to get together and talk.

“As a result, we included the little amendments that they did offer up, and thereafter there was nothing more to discuss or debate at Full Council as that opportunity has passed.”

A spokesperson for Peterborough City Council said: “The Conservatives moved and seconded their budget, in which they accepted the budget amendments from the Labour Group and Green Groups. When the matter was opened for the debate, it was asked that the ‘question now be put’ which is known as a closure motion under council standing orders.

“When such a motion is moved and seconded it is for the Mayor to then decide whether this motion should proceed to be voted on, and as part of this decision, he should consider if the matter has been sufficiently discussed.

“The Mayor moved to the vote on whether the motion should now be put, and this was carried. So, after that the budget motion went to the vote and was carried.”