How to plug a black hole

Full council meetings can be very boring affairs. When I attended a full meeting of the East Riding of Yorkshire Council a few months ago, I was told by a journalist that it starts with prayers and doesn't get any more exciting than that!

Yesterday afternoon, I sat in the public gallery at the Guildhall in Hull. Hull City Council meetings are usually lively affairs, and the animosity between councillors (usually those in the same party) is in full public display. The reason I attended was because of the following opposition motion:

Council welcomes the projected under spend by the authority for 2010/11 and balanced budget delivered by the previous Liberal Democrat administration.

Council hopes that a balanced budget can be maintained in future years to maintain the confidence of local people and businesses.

Council therefore expects that the current Labour administration give details as to how it will deal with the projected overspend of £6m in the Council's 2012/13 budget.

I have written before about what I regard as the new administration's 'head in the sand' position when it comes to the council's finances. After yesterday's meeting, I have not been given a reason to change my mind. The leader, Cllr Steve Brady, said he has been talking to the unions and has insisted sickness absences must be reduced from the current 6%, to 3%. His language was tough, and I agree with him. This is something that requires urgent action. The deputy leader, Cllr Darren Hale, spoke about a reduction in mileage claims, which will save the authority £1.4 million. Great I thought, we may be getting somewhere.

Next came the leader of the Conservative Group, Cllr John Fareham. (When I say group, as there are only two Conservative councillors serving on the council, their group meetings are rather short!) He spoke about the sloppy, lackadaisical way we look after public money in Hull.  All good stuff, but despite the hyperbole, I didn't hear any practical suggestions.

Then came speeches from Lib Dem, Cllr Claire Thomas, who ominously spoke about the black hole in council finances. Then the other half of the Tory group, John Abbott said promises will rebound. Cllr Bell, leader of the opposition Lib Dems, said the council will have to use reserves to plug the black hole. This prompted a rather emotional speech from the finance portfolio holder, Cllr Phil Webster, accusing the previous Lib Dem administration of taking money out of reserves. I'm not sure if anything he said made any sense, but with his raised voice and paper waving gesticulations, he certainly meant it!

So what did I glean? In a nutshell, the savings outlined were already factored in to Labour's draft budget before the elections, so we still have a £6 million potential overspend next year. To plug the gap, the council will once again dip into its reserves (how long these reserves will last, I do not know), and raise money through the back door, as in this story reported by Big Brother Watch yesterday.

The council will still continue to reduce the cost of school meals for primary school children, which will cost taxpayers £500K a year. It will still continue to fund trade union activities, including a building owned by the council which is used as office space. It will still continue to think it's really saving money by not making redundancy payments, forgetting the salaries of those staff who opted to take voluntary redundancy, will still have to be paid.

Perhaps the best comment of the day was one not made on the floor of the council chamber. Instead it was sent to me on Twitter. One Labour councillor said to me, "You have picked a good day to hear lots of dribble." I couldn't have put it better myself!

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