Thursday, February 10, 2022

Notes from the final budget meeting of Cumbria County Council

Left home in Moor Row at 7.50 am to drop my wife off at WCH (where she works) and drive to Carlisle Racecourse for the last ever budget meeting of Cumbria County Council. 

Group meetings at 9am, main meeting started 10am with the usual roll call which makes me feel  as if I were eleven years old and back at school. Followed up with a tributes and a minutes silence in memory of a valued colleague, Councillor Val Tarbitt, who died a few days ago, and a further tribute and silence to other people associated with the county council who have recently died.  

After a very long meeting I eventually arrived home about 7pm (meeting finished a little after 5pm but I stopped to chat with a few colleagues before driving home and stopped for fuel on the way.)

High point - the main feature of the Conservative amendment on the budget was to increase spending on fixing potholes by £1.2 million, £200k for each local committee area. The administration indicated that they would accept this if we would agree to a slightly different, but perfectly responsible and acceptable means of funding it, which we were willing to do, so this was passed.

So - another £1.2 million to fix some of the terrible roads in Cumbria, a county which has been called the pothole capital of England - that was worth fighting for and made sitting through the rest of the day worthwhile.

Low points - certain councillors spent an extraordinary amount of time giving history lessons about events in the 1970's while I was still at school and a significant minority of councillors present had not even been born. 

I was also disappointed that a Conservative group motion which I had initially been due to second and than to propose, asking that the council should not pursue further a Judicial Review case about Local Government reorganisation was blocked for technical reasons without an opportunity to discuss it.

This Judicial review - an expensive and complicated legal challenge is wasting significant amounts of both officer time and money and has no reasonable chance of success - we have already had a costs award against the county council of over £60,000 because the judge thought the county did not have a material case, and the true cost to the taxpayer so far is already likely to be more like £100,000 if not over that figure. It could go up quite a bit more if the case is not dropped.

Unfortunately the councillor who had been due to propose the motion was unable to be there because of a last minute but important work commitment - something which does happen occasionally to councillors who have to work for a living no matter how seriously they take their council duties. 

Many councils have in their constitution a rule that if the proposer of a motion is not present the motion cannot be discussed: if Cumbria County Council had such a rule then applying it would have been fair enough.

In fact CCC does NOT have that rule in its constitution but after a blizzard of points of order the instant I was called to propose the motion, it was eventually decided that it would be applied anyway.

Such points of order were one way for the Labour and Lib/Dem councillors to silence a proposal which for very different reasons they did not want to hear, I suppose.

I went through a phase of raising points of order when I was a student - in fact I was quite good at finding points of order which really did relate to real standing orders. But I grew out of calling out at the least excuse "Point of order Mr Chairman" (or Madam Mayor, or whatever the appropriate gender and form of address applied) long before I was thirty. 

If we want to encourage more normal people to get involved in local government perhaps we should make sure that the meetings are more about the things which matter to them and less about rulebook tennis.

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