High points and low points of the budget meeting of Cumbria County Council

Today's budget meeting of the county council began at 10am and finished at about a minute to 6pm but most councillors would have been in group meetings from 9am.

Among the highs and lows

West Cumbria Mining

At the start of the meeting there was a brief statement from the Environment Portfolio holder, Councillor Celia Tibble, about the fact that the West Cumbria Mining planning application is being taken back to committee for the fourth time.

I was not expecting a statement on this at all. Discussion about the merits of a planning application which either has not been determined or, as in this case, is coming back to committee for reconsideration is fraught with difficulty - planning committee members in particular have to be very careful not to say anything which might give the impression that they have already made up their minds about the application in advance.

However, if it was OK to make a statement about the process of bringing it back to committee, then it must be OK to ask about that process, so I asked specifically about the statement which had been made. In particular, I asked for confirmation of what role, if any, councillors had in that reference back process, and whether there was any reason for the reference back other than the objections made by law firm Richard Buxton on behalf of South Lakes Action on Climate Change.

The reply was that I would be sent a written response because the mine is too sensitive to discuss in public.

Excuse me? It's OK to make a public statement but the issue is too sensitive to allow public answers to any questions about that statement? 

Funding Cumbria Police

The government has given Cumbria County council £3.7 million to spend ourselves or passport to other public bodies through the "Contain Outbreak Fund" which is ring fenced specifically to deal with certain COVID-19 protection purposes such as information and enforcement.

That, by the way, is only a small fraction of the much larger total amount the government has given the council to support us through the pandemic, but I had a specific question on this one too.

So far the county council has allocated to other bodies or spent itself two tranches of this money worth more than £2.5 million - all to things which had all party support, which is why the Conservative group didn't "call in" or challenge the decisions to award either of those tranches. But £1,132 million has not been spent or allocated.

In their discussion with other bodies in Cumbria about how best to spend this money, council officers had discussed the matter with the police, who have indeed had extra enforcement costs and suggested that some of this money should go towards them.

The Labour leader of the council didn't dispute any of this, but refused to consider the possibility of allocating any of the unspent money towards the police - he said there were "better uses" but gave no clear indication of what he was proposing to spend instead which would use the whole of the remaining sum and make it impossible to meet the relatively modest request from Cumbria Constabulary.

No support for Cumbria Police from Cumbria's Labour leader

An inflation-busting 4% rise in council tax to put the money in the bank

In November, when the government had not decided whether councils would be allowed continue putting an extra couple of percent on the council tax increase to fund Adult Social Care, the county council cabinet passed a budget, signed off by the council officers as balanced and legal, which included a rise of just under 2%.

No councillor or officer has uttered a convincing explanation of any change between November and today which would be a good reason why that  budget, with a 2% council tax rise, would not be balanced and legal today. The only difference is that since then the government has now decided that a rule allowing a slightly higher increase in council tax for councils with adult social care costs at the council's discretion. So Cumbria County council can put up taxes by a bit more than we thought would be possible in November  if we want to of think we need to.

This is not compulsory. But you try telling a Labour or Lib/Dem councillor that they should ever put taxes up by less than the maximum amount allowed.

So the Lib/dem and Labour councillors decided to put up the county element of the council tax by just under 4% (to be precise, 3.99%) and put the money in the bank.

The council tax increase will raise £9.559 million. They are adding £10 million to the general reserve.

At the height of  a pandemic and the worst recession of 300 years, when even Sir Keir Starmer called the idea of such a council tax rise "absurd," Labour and Lib/Dem councillors put the council tax up by four times the rate of inflation in order to put the money in the bank!

Every Conservative county councillor voted against this. 

The good news - council votes to be represented on the GDF review

Eight years ago Cumbria County Council killed a process called "Managing Radioactive Waste Safely" by pulling out of it.

There were arguments for or against that decision. Personally I thought and still do think that as there are literally thousands of tons of nuclear material in Cumbria, including over a hundred tons of Plutonium Oxide, in total about 2,000 cubic metres of high level waste and 76,000 cubic metres of intermediate level waste, it made sense to look for the best long-term strategy to deal with it.

There is now another review of what to do about Britain's nuclear waste in progress but there is an important difference: this review will go ahead whether the county council takes part in the discussions or not. 

So the vote we held today was not a vote about whether there will be a review. It was a vote about whether the review will go ahead with Cumbria county council represented and putting forward our concerns and issues, or whether the view should go ahead with the council represented by an empty chair.

The issue of nuclear waste is of enormous importance to West Cumbria and I thought it was a total abdication of responsibility when the Labour leader of the county council, without even consulting his own cabinet never mind the rest of the council, refused to take up an offer for the council to be represented on that review.

It should have elected councillors taking part in the review from each level of government, taking part and reporting back in an open and transparent way so that local people can hear from their representatives what is going on and hold those representatives to account.

Turns out the majority of the council thinks so too.

A motion to take up representation on the review working groups, proposed by my Conservative colleague Arthur Lamb and seconded by myself, was passed today by 40 votes to 18 with all party support. All the Conservative councillors present, all the Labour councillors from Copeland, and a significant number of other Labour, Lib/Dem and Independent councillors voted in favour.

I would like to thank colleagues of all parties who voted for the motion for their support.


Gary Bullivant said…
I listened in and I was surprised at the general level of ignorance of the Working with Communities process for the GDF. The CWG isn't doing a review, it's a self selected body of interested parties that is conducting a conversation with local people, identifying and proposing a search area within Copeland and, if there is still continuing interest, forming one or more partnerships to move forward within the process. That is not a review and it doesn't need any more uncommitted people to do it.

Whilst I recognise that the WG had to invite CCC to join it, I wasn't disappointed that the invitation had been refused because this is certainly not a case of the more the merrier. It's like wading through treacle already. Then to hear someone denigrate the Interested Parties and say that they didn't think RWM's heart was in it just about took the biscuit. I speak as one of a small team who got off their bottoms to seize the opportunity provided to them by national government.

Chris Whiteside said…
My reaction to your post is very much curate's egg - parts of it are excellent.

I share your view of the comments denigrating the interesting parties and saying that RWM's heart wasn't in it.

I appreciate your action and those of others who got off their bottoms to seize the opportunity to get involved.

My only disagreement with you is that I think the County Council should do the same.

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