The Tory council that’s lobbying against Cameron’s cuts

9 09 2010

Interesting shenanigans at Conservative-run Derby City Council, which has found itself lobbying against the Tory-led national government’s spending cuts.

At the end of July, a council vote forced Conservative council leader Harvey Jennings to write to communities secretary Eric Pickles in protest at the impact of government funding cuts on Derby.

And then last night, the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems all voted to lobby education secretary Michael Gove over his decision to axe most of the city’s schoolbuilding programme, which was weeks away from signing contracts when he pulled the plug.

So is this a Tory council in revolt? Well, not quite.

This May’s local elections left the council with a three-way split between Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems. Negotiations saw the Conservatives form a minority administration, with the Lib Dems not part of a coalition but allowing them to govern.

This left the Conservatives vulnerable to defeat on individual votes – as happened in late July, when the council was debating the government’s in-year cuts, and the council’s budget strategy.

The Labour group moved an amendment to approve the council’s budget strategy ‘but to actively lobby against the Government’s proposed 25-30% cuts in grant’ – see page 14 here.

The Conservatives voted against it, but with a few Tory councillors absent and the Lib Dems abstaining – for reasons that aren’t clear, even having spoken to two of their councillors – the amendment was carried.

As a result, Cllr Jennings had to write to Pickles in his capacity as council leader, warning about the impact the cuts would have on Derby. The full letter is here (apologies for the imperfect formatting) – one highlight is where he confirms that imminent funding cuts to local councils are likely to hit poorer areas hardest:

‘A key message I would like to get across is how the funding cuts will not affect all authorities to the same extent. Highly geared, deprived authorities such as Derby are particularly vulnerable to both Specific and Formula Grant cuts and I would urge you to give this serious consideration before any decisions are made on funding share in the comprehensive spending announcement.’

Cllr Jennings takes fire at how the current grant system and three-year settlement – both legacies of the Labour government – favour London boroughs over councils like Derby, and urges Pickles to reform the system before October’s spending review.

And then:

‘…it would be deeply regrettable if we had to cut our capital programme at a time in which we have a strong desire to create jobs for local people.’

What’s this? A Conservative council leader backing public spending as a means of creating jobs for local people? Why yes, yes it is!

In conclusion:

‘To keep the impact on service provision to a minimum we urge that any further cuts announced during the Comprehensive Spending review in October are kept to a minimum.’

No word yet on whether Pickles has replied.

As for the Building Schools for the Future programme, the scrapping of which has provoked concern among many Conservatives, Derby has seen 11 local school redevelopment projects scrapped, and just three ‘sample schools’ saved.

At last night’s council meeting, all three parties backed a proposal to write to Gove opposing the decision to scrap the local BSF programme, and to invite him to Derby to discuss the situation. No doubt a letter will follow shortly.

None of this will realistically alter anything by itself. But it is possible to believe that letters of protest from a series of Conservative and Lib Dem minority-run councils may discomfort the Conservative leadership, and cause the Lib Dem leadership plenty of concern, ahead of next year’s local elections.

Derby City Council hasn’t yet decided what specific cuts it will make, but it expects to reduce spending by £30m over the next five years – on top of £32m it was already planning to cut over three years. This from a total annual budget of £200m. 750 posts will go.

There has been controversy locally over a planned £34m refurbishment of Derby’s council headquarters – Labour says the money could be better spent on schools and services. The council insists the refurbishment will recoup money over time, described in detail by the council here.

Meanwhile, Derbyshire County Council was the target of a 150-strong protest yesterday over plans to increase adult care charges, led by Unison and service users who forced the issue into the council chamber.

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