Peterborough Tories forced to call in absent councillors after budget plans defeated for first time in council’s 20 year history

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There was huge drama at last night’s Peterborough City Council budget meeting after the Conservatives were forced to call in two absent councillors to get their spending plans approved.

The council’s budget was remarkably defeated in a first vote - something unprecedented in its 22 year history as a unitary authority - before finally passing two hours later after a series of crisis meetings behind closed doors failed to break the impasse.

The deadlock was only finally broken thanks to the presence of councillors David Seaton and Ray Bisby - who had both been called away from the meeting due to family emergencies - whose votes helped the ruling Tories overturn a one vote deficit at around 11.30pm.

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There are 60 seats on the council, with the Conservatives holding 28 of them. They rely on the votes of the three Werrington First councillors to secure a majority.

The Full Council meeting in the Council ChamberThe Full Council meeting in the Council Chamber
The Full Council meeting in the Council Chamber

Retiring leader of the council, Cllr John Holdich, said: “In my 43 years service in local government I’ve never known anything quite like this.”

There was little sign of the drama to come early in the evening with each of the leaders of the political parties paying a touching homage to Cllr Holdich, whose family members have sat on a council in Peterborough in one capacity or another since 1880.

Dressed in his fathers’ ceremonial regalia, much as a councillor would have looked in the 1950s, Cllr Holdich said he would miss the “daily drama of council matters” but now wants to spend more time with Barbara, his wife of 54 years, his family and grandchildren.

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The budget was presented to the chamber by deputy leader Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald as cabinet member for finance Cllr David Seaton was suddenly called away due to a family emergency.

So too was Cllr Ray Bisby – also a Conservative member – meaning that with both members absent from the chamber the Conservatives no longer had enough votes to get their plans approved.

The council had a near £40 million budget deficit for 2020/21, with councillors voting through a first tranche of savings in January.

The latest proposals were to tackle the remaining £16 million shortfall and included increasing parking tariffs by 50p, while the fees for resident and visitor permits will now also rise.

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The hike from March 30 is expected to save the cash-strapped council £300,000 a year as it battles huge cuts to its government funding.

The authority is also seeking to make a number of redundancies and has asked the Government if it can borrow the money for the one-off costs, rather than dip into its reserves.

Once the latest budget proposals had been presented an amendment from Labour’s Cllr Amjad Iqbal was proposed and debated over at length.

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That debate grew more and more feisty as the evening wore on, with comments on its merits, or otherwise, passing back and forth across the chamber from the competing political factions.

When it finally came to a vote, the amendment was defeated by 18 votes to 27 with nine abstentions.

With the amendment defeated members were required to vote on the original budget plans which saw Labour, the Lib Dems, Green Party and Liberal Party councillors decide to vote against the ruling Conservatives.

And when the vote was taken the result was 27 (for) and 28 (against) with no abstentions.

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For a few seconds there was silence in the chamber as if nobody quite knew what to do next.

All councils are legally required to deliver a budget so a decision had to be made before anyone could go home.

Should, for any reason, a council fail to deliver a budget then the legal officers would have no option other than to suspend the council – meaning in real terms that all spending would come to an immediate stop overnight – and the Government would have to intervene, sending in officers to take over proceedings.

Such a situation – known as a section 114 order – occurred recently with the financial crisis at Northamptonshire County Council.

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While the majority of members sat stunned in their chairs, the leaders of each of the political parties were marched away to the Mayor’s Parlour by chief executive Gillian Beasley with her legal officers, and effectively locked in until they could come up with a solution to the crisis.

Minutes ticked by with little or no progress seemingly being made, while everybody had to wait in the chamber until some kind of compromise solution could be found.

After more than an hour, the doors to the Mayor’s Parlour opened and each of the leaders of the political groups rushed over to their cohorts to talk over what had been said.

After several minutes of discussion they all returned to the Mayor’s Parlour and the doors were once again shut and locked.

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Speculation among the members in the chamber as to what was being discussed was rife, with all manner of strange ideas being mooted.

In actual fact the solution was simpler than anybody could have imagined – just telephone the two absent members, Cllrs Bisby and Seaton, and get them back into the chamber as quickly as possible so that a second vote could be taken, giving victory to the Conservatives.

The problem was that Cllrs Bisby and Seaton had been required to leave the chamber for family emergencies, and to call them back was not an easy decision for the Conservative group to make.

But just after 11pm they both returned.

However, in the Mayor’s Parlour, Cllr Nick Sandford, leader of the Lib Dem group, said he would change his vote in favour of the Conservatives, provided the council reverse the first part of its budget savings and reinstate £516,000 to the Citizens Advice Bureau and £500,000 towards the climate emergency.

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Cllr Holdich said: “Where am I supposed to find £1 million out of thin air to do what the Lib Dems are asking? This is blackmail.” Cllr Sandford said: “Borrow it from council reserves.”

The legal officers called everybody back to their seats and explained what was happening: Cllr Sandford’s proposal for a compromise would be voted on first and, if approved, he would vote with the Conservatives to pass the budget.

However, the amendment was soundly defeated.

Then, a second round of voting was required to take place on Cllr Iqbal’s amendment proposal which was also defeated.

Finally, a second vote was taken on the budget itself.

This time, with both Cllr Bisby and Cllr Seaton in the chamber, it passed.

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After the meeting an angry Cllr Fitzgerald said: “When things are that tight in the chamber in terms of control the liberals, the Labour Party and the Green Party – the ‘rainbow coalition’ - got themselves together.

“But the Lib Dems it seems hadn’t properly thought through what might happen if we found ourselves in a position as we did tonight, whereas we had thought it through – we knew that democratically we could find 29 members to vote if Werrington First had a mind to support us, and we had an indication that might be the case.

“Yes, we had to bring back two members who had left the chamber for urgent family-related issues, but we won in the end.

“What upsets me the most is that Cllr Nick Sandford and his Lib Dems hijacked the meeting in the Mayor’s Parlour by trying to blackmail us into borrowing a million pounds of taxpayers’ money from reserves in order for him to vote our budget through.

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“He didn’t know we’d already called Cllrs Bisby and Seaton back to the chamber which foiled his plan.”

Speaking after the meeting Cllr Sandford explained things slightly differently, saying: “We said we would support their budget if they removed the most damaging cuts from it and put back some money into the Citizens Advice Bureau and tackling the climate emergency.

“We were being threatened that if we didn’t allow their budget through the chief executive officer would issue a section 114 notice stopping all but essential spending from tomorrow.

“The Tories could have held this meeting weeks ago but chose to leave it to the last minute so there was no time to have another meeting to present a new budget.”

Cllr Holdich said: “I wanted my time as a councillor to go out with a bang, but I didn’t have this in mind!”