Birmingham City Council’s new budget – which saw £100 million of spending cuts with little detail on how they will be achieved – has been described as a “ticking time tomb” by the opposition Labour deputy leader.
With 57 out of 120 seats to be contested in May’s local elections, Labour are, barring an unprecedented electoral shock, likely to take control of the city council and inherit the budget agreed this week from the ruling Tory-Lib Dem coaltion.
But the Labour group were left scratching their heads over the cuts and could only propose a minor £6 million adjustment out of a total £3.5 billion budget – to make things “fairer”.
Just how will £5 million be cut from children’s centres without closing them or how will the adults and communities budget save £2.8 million through “efficiencies”?
Instead Labour said that the Tory Lib Dem coalition had kept council tax “artificially low” with below inflation rises over the last eight years so that now they had £70 million a year less to spend than comparable metropolitan districts.
This was immediately leapt upon by the Tories and Lib Dems as a Labour policy of increasing council tax.
Labour deputy leader Coun Ian Ward (Shard End) managed to stir an otherwise sedate debate when he said: “This budget is designed to get the Tories and Lib Dems past the local elections in May. It is a ticking time bomb.
“The council is offering little in the way of hope to young people who are not in employment, education and training and no hope for disabled people at Shelforce.”
He claimed, to derision from his opponents, that the Labour group has vision and wondered whether leader Mike Whitby or deputy Paul Tilsley would be leaving the note saying “there’s no money left”.
Those leaders preferred to go over old ground – highlighting eight years of their successes picking up housing and social services from the doldrums, lobbying for New Street improvements and other investment and cutting a billion from the bill through business transformation.
They also pointed out that Labour had not offered a “vision” or alternative other than to switch £6 million in funding about to back up the youth employment service Connexions for another six months, help the door and window maker Shelforce, which employs disabled people, support jobs for young people and offer more funding to constituencies for local services.
Tory leader Mike Whitby was scathing of the alternative budget produced on two sides of paper, compared to the 200 plus pages of the official council business plan, but he pledged to look on those areas “favourably” and dip into contingency funds if appropriate.
In what was his eighth and possibly final budget as Council Leader, Mr Whitby hailed the deal as a budget for the “million people of Birmingham”. He celebrated the council tax freeze for a second year running, funded by a Government grant and highlighted the fact that no swimming pools, libraries or even golf courses would close as a result of the cuts.
“It is essential that we remember that we are still spending billions on quality services for local people,” he added.
He added that a further £33 million was being spent on care for the elderly and disabled as a result of a court challenge last year and that a further £8 million would be invested in the struggling children’s social care department.
Each of the council’s 40-ward committee are also being handed an extra £25,000 to spend on local projects.
It was also pointed out by Liberal Democrat Paul Tilsley that business transformation had put more services online or through the call centre ending queues, bureaucracy and saving the council £1 billion over ten years.
Sir Albert Bore (Lab, Ladywood) slated the budget as being unclear, hard on disadvantaged communities and doing little to support jobs and young people.
But he defended the lack of a detailed alternative saying: “The level of cut in Government funding makes it impossible to produce an alternative budget. Instead we have looked for ways to make the budget fairer.”
He also tore into Councillor Whitby’s claim that Birmingham is a global city, pointing out that many European cities are streets ahead on the green agenda, investment and profile.
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