Opinion: Where now for the council’s finances?
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The Conservative administration of which I was a proud member was pushed into opposition and my cabinet role was passed on to a member of the new administration, Councillor John Howard, a running mate who stands in the same ward as the new leader, Councillor Farooq.
Two years ago, Councillor Farooq stood against Councillor Wayne Fitzgerald with a bid to lead the Conservatives in the council. However, the group chose Councillor Wayne Fitzgerald to lead the group and the Council by a clear majority, since he was clearly the more experienced and capable candidate and whose leadership had been endorsed by the former leader, Councillor John Holdich. This backroom putsch by Councillor Farooq doesn't bode well, especially as this move to a rump administration has come at a key point in the Council's development.
Two years ago we were looking at the prospect of falling into special measures, with predicted budget gaps of over £20 million in 21/22 and £27 million in 22/23. During this time I was privileged to be part of the recovery team, working with Councillor Fitzgerald and my cabinet colleagues to solve the financial crisis we were facing. This meant making extremely difficult decisions, which included some unpopular moves, but which were absolutely necessary to reduce overspending. This is what genuine Conservative administrations should be doing - showing competence and probity with public money and making the difficult decisions when required. It didn't prove popular with our opposition colleagues, and many questions were asked about our decisions, such as closure of the hydrotherapy pool, about our investment in solar assets and in supporting the building of a new hotel. However, thanks to Councillor Fitzgerald we made great strides in working with the opposition groups to have a better understanding of the challenges the council was facing and the most important part of that process was to bring opposition members into a more collaborative approach over the council's budget.
We set up a new group, the Financial Sustainability Working Group as a cross-party meeting to discuss the Budget. (A dreadful name, I know, but opposition members didn't like the more obvious "Budget Working Group" as a title because a former group of that name had been effectively boycotted by the Labour and Liberal Democrat groups in the council.) The first year was a bit of a struggle, because petty politics got in the way, and many opposition councillors voted against the budget, leaving the casting vote of the Mayor, Councillor Stephen Lane to enable the lawful budget to be passed. I will never forget the comment of one opposition councillor, who said in the meeting that they wouldn't vote for the budget because they didn't understand it! The following year the process had matured, and all political groups engaged in the Financial Sustainability Working Group, leading to a much smoother process and the budget passed comfortably, with some opposition members abstaining and only one councillor voting against.
With many councils across the country now facing significant financial challenges, our model of Financial Sustainability Working Group is touted as best practice nationally. It is such a shame that the actions of Councillor Farooq and his band of brothers has put the model in jeopardy here in Peterborough. This year I was hoping to present the budget again, and was looking forward to showing the Council's much improved position, with a budget gap of around £6 million to close for 2024/25, and that gap being almost exclusively caused by the impact of inflation and increased demands in childrens' social care and in supporting homeless people, which I was confident our officer team were very capable of handling.
Instead I will be examining what the new administration proposes, particularly when it strays from the sensible, realistic approach of the recent Conservative administration. I await to see if this administration remains true to handling the budget gap as the Conservative administration would have done, but will be vocal in my opposition when I see their flimsy hold over the council challenged by their new coalition of friends in the smaller parties who now hold sway over the Peterborough First administration. I will also be looking carefully at the responses from the budget simulator that I launched in October to make sure this administration listens to the public when deciding how to set the budget between now and February 2024. And that is the most important thing - a council has to set a balanced budget every year, and we are all responsible, as councillors, to ensure that the budget is lawful. We won't be playing petty politics as other parties have done in Peterborough, but make no mistake, we won’t be collaborating uncritically with this second rate, second class, alternative administration, even if they claim success on the backs of the hard work our Conservative administration achieved.