The leader of Oldham Council was tonight expected to use his speech at the annual budget meeting to launch a fierce attack on the opposition Labour group.
Cllr Howard Sykes, who heads the Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition which controls the council, was due to say that a new Labour administration after May’s local elections would be a return to the “dark old days” for the borough.
According to a copy of Cllr Sykes’s speech sent in advance to Saddleworth News, he was going to claim the last Labour administration, voted out of office in 2008, had left a council which was “full of its own self-importance, but devoid of ideas and, to all intents and purposes, bankrupt.”
He was also due to criticise Labour nationally for what he described as the “desperately poor stewardship” of the budget during the last government. But he was also expected to have a pop at the new coalition government for a “difficult, testing and unfair” funding settlement.
Those are the strongest terms yet used by Cllr Sykes in public to describe the central government grant cuts. He’s been reluctant to join Labour-led councils such as Manchester in their vocal complaints about the Tory/Lib Dem coalition at Westminster, preferring instead to get his message across to ministers behind the scenes.
Cllr Sykes was presenting a plan to make £41m of savings from the council’s budget, partly in response to the £21m cut in Oldham’s various government grants, and partly because of pre-existing budget pressures. Up to 800 jobs are expected to go under the proposals, largely in the labour-intensive area of social care for adults and children.
He was expected to say: “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 was due to continue: “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.”
Labour was also presenting its alternative budget to councillors. The two sets of proposals actually differ relatively little, with Labour accepting all but £3m of the £41m of cuts proposed by the administration. Indeed, since Labour first put forward its plans last month, more than £500,000 of its suggested savings have now been accepted by the Lib Dem-led coalition.
The main point of contention is the administration’s plan to save £1.5m by outsourcing aspects of care for the elderly to the private sector. Labour opposes that, and the issue was expected to feature prominently during tonight’s meeting.
Political control of the council is finely balanced, with the Lib Dems and Labour having 27 councillors apiece. The five-strong Conservative group backs the Lib Dem-led administration. There is one Green.
That means the Lib Dem/Conservative budget is almost certainly going to be passed tonight in place of Labour’s alternative proposals, barring a surprise rebellion among backbenchers. However, Labour has high hopes of regaining control of the council after May’s elections.
For live updates from the meeting, 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.
A Saddleworth News interview with Cllr Sykes from last week can be read here and here, while Labour group leader Cllr Jim McMahon’s letter appealing to Lib Dem and Tory backbenchers to vote for his alternative budget can be viewed in full here.