A row over Birmingham’s £320 million cuts programme descended into a bitter slanging match after the city council's Conservative leader was accused of taking pleasure from slashing public services and axing thousands of jobs.
The claim came from opposition Labour leader Sir Albert Bore, who said Coun Mike Whitby “had a smile on his face” when announcing details of the savings package at a press conference at the end of last week.
Sir Albert said he was shocked when watching the council leader being interviewed on television to discover that Coun Whitby was grinning and appeared to be enjoying himself.
Addressing Coun Whitby at a cabinet meeting, Sir Albert said: “It was like Tory MPs in the House of Commons when the Comprehensive Spending Announcement was being made smiling all over their faces and laughing at the cuts that were coming.
“You did exactly the same thing in front of the television cameras. You did it with a smile on your face, and it made me very cross indeed.”
Labour also questioned Coun Whitby’s policy of keeping council tax rises at just 1.9 per cent a year since 2005. Sir Albert claimed that the city would today have an additional £60 million to spend on essential services if bills had risen in line with inflation.
Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) shot back, accusing Sir Albert of “incompetency” and “abject failure” when he ran the council between 1999 and 2004.
He denied laughing at the city’s financial difficulties, adding that he had been captured by the cameras smiling when “talking to someone about a totally different issue”.
Coun Whitby added: “Am I sad about the impact this will have on front line services? Of course I am. But I don’t wear my tears on my shoulder.”
He pointed out that, under Labour’s rule, the city’s social services, housing and schools performed so badly that they came close to being taken over and run directly by the Government.
Coun Whitby stressed that his Tory-Liberal Democrat council coalition would do everything possible to make sure cuts did not harm vulnerable people.
However, he admitted that the scale of savings – £212 million over the next year and £320 million by 2015 – meant that services for the poorest people were bound to be affected and he did not rule out compulsory redundancies among the 2,500 council job cuts expected this year.
He continued: “This partnership is not in power to harm people’s lives. We are here to raise the quality of life for everyone.”
Liberal Democrat deputy council leader Paul Tilsley insisted the coalition had approached spending cuts with “humility”.
Coun Tilsley added: “I have been unemployed, I know what it is like to sign on at the Kings Heath Job Centre and it’s not very pleasant.
“We are humble when making the decisions we had to make.”
He said some of the fears about service cuts were overplayed, adding: “The streets will still be cleaned, bins will be emptied, children will go to school, we are not closing any libraries or leisure centres. It is not Armageddon.”