The Liberal Democrat/Conservative administration which runs Oldham Council had its budget for the coming financial year passed tonight, but only just. Deputy leader of the Tory group, Cllr Len Quinn, quit the party to vote with Labour, as the coalition’s majority was cut to just two.
Cllr Quinn, who represents Chadderton North and was once in the Labour Party, said he would now be sitting as an independent member of the council.
Up to 800 jobs are expected to go under the budget, which features £41m of savings, including £21m forced by a cut in funding from the government.
Councillors spent more than three hours debating both that budget and an alternative set of proposals from Labour.
The two sides actually agreed on all but £3m of the savings. But Labour didn’t accept the administration’s idea of outsourcing home help and respite care for elderly people to the private sector. That will now happen, with the council hoping the change will save £1.5m, but Labour claiming it’ll cost 200 of those 800 jobs.
Council leader and Lib Dem Cllr Howard Sykes criticised past Labour administrations, and told the meeting: “This administration is about long term decisions that create solid foundations for our borough. The council now knows what it spends, where it spends it and has an open and transparent budgetary process second to none.”
Cllr Sykes continued: “Having said that, there are still challenges, which will require us to take many more millions out of the budget over the next few years, but we will deliver, and it will be done with minimum impact on frontline services.”
The leader of the Tory group, Cllr Jack Hulme, praised the budget for including what he called “a range of realistic and sustained savings.” On job losses, he said it was with “great regret that we must look to the reduce the size of the council.”
Responding for the opposition, Labour group leader Cllr Jim McMahon said Cllrs Sykes and Hulme hadn’t done enough to fight for Oldham, after what he called a “grossly unfair” funding settlement from the government: “When the people of Oldham needed a voice, this administration stayed silent. It’s not good enough, we’ve let them down.”
He also questioned the motivation behind the savings, winning applause from the busy public gallery at the Civic Centre for saying: “This is about more than finance, it’s about ideology.” He went on to accuse the Lib Dems and Tories of wanting to do the right thing by their “private sector buddies” instead of for the people of the borough.
A more conciliatory tone was struck by senior Labour member Cllr Abdul Jabbar. Seconding Labour’s plans, he conceded that there was “broad consensus” between the two sides over most of their respective budgets.
Following a lengthy discussion over various aspects of the competing proposals, the two main party leaders wrapped up the debate with closing speeches. A recurring theme from many Lib Dem speakers was the alleged “risk” of Labour’s plans, and Cllr Sykes said “deliverability and the approach to risk” was a key difference between the two budgets.
He went on to dismiss Labour’s idea of cutting jobs from services such as HR instead of adult social care, saying that would simply “displace job losses from one part of the council to another” and praising the work of the council’s human resources team during the current staff cuts.
Cllr Sykes also denied the decision to outsource elderly care to the private sector was driven by ideology, insisting: “I don’t have a mantra that the private sector is best. But the private sector can provide services.”
Cllr McMahon responded: “What a night of nonsense. We’ve wasted a lot of our time talking about party politics, and dogma about who should provide public services.” He added: “The private sector has a role, but we don’t want it to be the first option.”
Looking ahead to May’s local elections, at which Labour has high hopes of regaining overall control of the council, Cllr McMahon described some of the speeches made by Lib Dems in favour of the budget as “the longest resignation in history.” Pointing to the decrepit state of the old Town Hall, he concluded: “As long as Oldham is in the hands of the Lib Dems and Tories, Oldham will remain boarded up.”
A vote was then taken on Labour’s alternative budget. It was defeated by 31 to 29, with all 27 Labour councillors voting in favour, along with Cllr Quinn and Green member Cllr Ian Barker. The 27 Lib Dems, including all nine Saddleworth councillors, voted against, as did the other four Conservatives.
In a second vote on the administration’s own budget plans, it was once again 31-29 in favour of the coalition.
For updates of the meeting as it happened check the Saddleworth News Twitter feed here.
You can get the full details of the various proposals by looking at the agenda for the meeting here.
(Editor’s note: I’ll be writing in more detail about some more aspects of what went on at the meeting in the coming days)