Today Suffolk County Council was discussing the County Council Budget 2015-16 – always an occasion of much grandstanding and some polite(ish) mudslinging.
I am always flummoxed at how Suffolk Conservatives accuse opposition parties wanting to spend money of ‘lacking ambition,‘ Yet clearly the height of Conservative ambition (as articulated in these selfsame meetings) is to put their money under the mattress and hope for the best. Astonishing.
Apart from anything else, as my colleague, Lib Dem Deputy Leader John Field reminded them, “You save for a rainy day – not for a rainy decade!”
Then of course there is the exhibition that Cllr Colin Noble makes every year, bellowing “11.9%!” and “18%!“. He never once forgets to accuse Labour of having once raised something by such amounts. He never once mentions whether it was value for money. Oddly enough, although he grandstands frequently about ‘big black holes‘ into which money has fallen, Cllr Noble never ever once remembers to mention the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds of hardworking Suffolk taxpayers’ money he wasted on Suffolk Circle via a decision made in camera. Strange but true.
So I reminded him – and now I’m reminding you too. (You can brush up on all the details if you read my blog post The Short Life of Suffolk Circle and what it Cost Us Suffolk Taxpayers).
Some of those hundreds of thousands of wasted pounds would have come in very handy this year, Cllt Noble. Conservative budget proposals included savings (a polite word for cuts) of £38.2 m, leading to a budget requirement of £454,981,413. Reserves are forecast as reaching £165million by the end of March. A long Labour amendment detailed reinstatement of £12m of the cuts. The Liberal Democrats did not agree with all of these reinstatements – but we agreed with £8.5million of them and so we supported the Labour amendment.
I spoke passionately with special reference to supporting educational transport for disadvantaged post-16 year olds. We don’t need to take money out. Affordable transport to education is crucial. A recent Commons report tells us that 30% of young people NEET (not in education employment or training) would have been in post-16 education if they had money to cover the transport;40% of young people in the kind of work with no training element ditto. And of course the economic impact to these young people extends far beyond the economic year.
I reminded the Cabinet Spokesman for Transport, Cllr Newman, how hard I had fought for the a restoration of the Youth travel card, and how, though successful, the new Endeavour card was just a “pale and washy simulacrum” of the Explore card it replaced: operator take-up isn’t universal, it doesn’t cover train transport and the actual discount is much less.
I said I knew Cllr Newman would tell me that bursaries would cover the deficit. But the same Commons report tells us how inequitably these bursaries are disbursed, especially in rural areas.
“Unless we provide young people from disadvantaged families with the proper support to travel to study or training, we are not supporting them, we are not widening participation, we are not extending them the helping hand they need to alter long-term outcomes. And more, we are creating a postcode lottery in which the rural young people are particularly disadvantaged,” I said. “I urge my colleagues opposite to think again. You are putting your money into reserves? Invest instead in these young people, and save the spend in budgets of the future.”
The debate continued until nearly 6pm, but the Labour amendment was lost 38-30, and the Tories managed to vote their original budget in, 37-31.
Close – but no cigar.