Peterborough City’s Council’s budget is approved amid storm over ‘lack of debate’

Peterborough City Council’s budget was approved despite a furious row over a lack of debate.

Thursday, 4th March 2021, 5:56 pm
Updated Thursday, 4th March 2021, 9:19 pm
The online Full Council meeting on March 3.

There were serious arguments at the online meeting of the Full Council (March 3), when opposition councillors say they were ‘denied’ the chance to debate the budget.

Cllr David Seaton, Cabinet Member for Resources and who has overall responsibility for the council’s budget, had presented a fifteen-minute speech to his fellow members asking them to approve the Medium-Term Financial Strategy 2021/22 through to 2023/24.

Opposition group leaders had met with the  Conservatives last week, to discuss the budget. It is understood that in return for the Conservatives accepting a number of amendments some opposition councillors agreed they would most likely abstain to avoid voting against the amendments they had agreed.  Those amendments were accepted.

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However, when the call to approve the budget was made at Full Council  on wednesday night, opposition leaders called for debate on the matter.

Cllr Nick Sandford said: “We’ve just listened to Cllr Seaton for a quarter of an hour going on about these budget proposals; but this is an important issue for this council and the people of Peterborough – are you seriously saying that by only hearing one person talk we’ve had adequate discussion on the matter?”

Cllr Mohammed Farooq replied: “We’ve had a document that we’ve all studied, and then you made amendments which you felt were appropriate, and we agreed to them.

“We’re all reading from the same page; we all knew what was contained in the document because we all agreed to it.

“Let’s simply get to the vote without any need for debate, so we can move on and discuss other important council matters on the agenda.”

Cllr Sandford added: “I’m absolutely opposed to this absolute travesty of democracy that we’re seeing taking place.”

Cllr Seaton replied: “We all agreed to the budget so it is democratic, and we scrutinised it last week…”

Cllr Sandford interjected: “Lack of debate is not democratic, Cllr Seaton.”

A vote was taken on whether or not there should be any debate, resulting in a stalemate: 28 votes to 28.

As is the protocol , the Mayor, Cllr Gul Nawaz, has the casting vote as to whether debate should be allowed or not.

The Mayor chose to deny any debate.

This then resulted in a lengthy argument between the leading Conservative Group who reiterated that because agreement had been reached the previous week, any matter needing debate should’ve been brought up at that time.

However, the opposition parties argued that debate is a fundamental part of democracy and that it was incorrect to allow the budget to pass un-debated by members.

Cllr Sandford asked a question on a point of order, saying: “Mr Mayor, given what you have just done during the last couple of minutes of this meeting, I have no confidence in the fact that you are chairing this meeting impartially.

“I would like to ask the Legal Officer is there a mechanism that we can move a motion of no confidence in the Mayor, because of the way he is chairing this council meeting.”

Fiona McMillan, Legal Officer replied: “There is no mechanism within current standing orders to have a vote of no confidence in the Mayor.

“The Mayor, under standing orders may exercise any power or duty of the Mayor, and it was within his gift to decide that the matter had been sufficiently discussed.”

Cllr Sandford responded: “So, you are happy as the Legal Officer of this council that having no debate, that is adequate and reasonable discussion? I find that appalling.”

Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald responded: “Mr Mayor, may I make a point of personal explanation on behalf of the Conservative Group for our reasoning on this matter?

“This is a public meeting and is being streamed live… our view on this is we have all agreed and accepted all the amendments on the budget, so therefore I can’t see that we wouldn’t be in agreement; otherwise, members putting those amendments would be voting against their own budget.

“So, let me be perfectly clear – there’s been enough and adequate discussion of this budget over a number of weeks; what is there to discuss if we’ve already agreed it?

“Can we please move on? I think we’ve had the vote and then we can get on to the other issues which people complain about there isn’t enough time for. Well now there will be time.”

Finally, the Legal Officer called for a vote to approve the budget or not.

A vote was taken with the result 28 votes for, nine against and 18 abstaining, and the budget was therefore approved.

During the vote taking, Cllr Ansar Ali said: “In the interests of democracy I cannot vote for this budget without debate, so I’m abstaining.”

Cllr Nicola Day added: “Disappointed that we’ve had no debate – abstaining.”

Cllr Angus Ellis said: “I’m extremely disappointed that we’ve had no proper debate on the budget this year, hence I will be abstaining.”

However, Cllr Fitzgerald said: “It’s clear we’re all agreeing the budget, but the opposition are voting against their own, so I’m for.”

Earlier in the meeting, Cllr David Seaton, Cabinet Member for Resources and the councillor who has overall responsibility for the council’s budget and who is retiring this May, said: “This will be my last budget for Peterborough City Council and I would like to thank all members from whichever political party for making my life so interesting.

“Last year, when I stood up to announce the Medium-Term Financial Plan in the council chamber on 4 March 2020, this council had a balanced budget.

“By this March we had a £14m gap, but we’d already begun work towards identifying how to claw-back £12m of that, and I was confident that, while pressures would arise, we would find the remaining £2m. Our record showed that I had good reason to be confident.

“But, while we delivered £33m worth of savings last year and we remain the 21st most efficient upper-tier council in the UK, we still face enormous challenges because of our growing population putting increased demands on our services, our very low council tax threshold – which is great for the people who live here – but in reality, this means that for every 1% we add to the rate of council tax, we get back significantly less than similar councils like Hull or Luton because they have more Band D properties than we do.

“Yet, last March I was concerned as a new disease in China had started to make headlines and even then, Peter Carpenter, our Finance Director and I discussed the potential implications.

“We knew our commercial income would be at risk – some 20% of our Net income – and, as the crisis developed, I have reported to Cabinet on the financial position of the council every month.

“To date, we’ve had £42.3m of additional costs, and while government grants largely cover that the impact of Covid-19 on our city will not immediately disappear.

“The Fairer Funding Review has been delayed and businesses will take time to recover, unemployment will remain a challenge, and any transformation work will of course take time to get back on track. We need funding to ‘Build Back Better’.

“This is why this council formerly engaged with central government at the earliest possible moment.

“So, where do we stand for the coming year?

“The Local Government Settlement, finalised in February, has clearly helped – we will get £12.7m of extra funding next year with £9m of that to cover Covid-19 pressures.

“A Capitalisation Direction – basically, borrowing – of up to £20m is available to us, and to balance the budget we forecast that we will need £13m of that.

“So, with exceptional government support, we have a balanced budget for next year that I ask Full Council to approve.”