View from the Council Chamber
Josh Fenton-Glynn, one of Hebden Bridge's 3 Calderdale councillors gives a personal report of Thursday's council meeting
Saturday, 22 September 2018
On Thursday 19 September I attended a five hour meeting of Calderdale Council. It probably showed the best and worst of what local government can be, with discussions of our responsibility to children in care, motions passed to stand up for the area's transport and air quality, alongside walk-outs, name calling and a 20 minute debate over whether it is appropriate for Calderdale Council to send a representative to the bus lane adjudication committee!
The meeting started with a presentation led by looked after children and former looked after children on how we can make sure they have a greater say in what they do and how we can best look after them. As councillors, many of us have signed up to be corporate parents and to a pledge to look after their interests.
The first controversial item (surprisingly) was whether or not Calderdale sent a representative to the regional bus lane adjudication committee. This is a fairly run of the mill bureaucratic part of the agenda that wasn't expected to be controversial. However, as both the Conservatives and Liberals have opposed bus lane enforcement in the past, they voted against the motion. But with one Conservative councillor being out of the room, the motion passed regardless.
Finances and Walkouts
While reviewing Cabinet decisions, we discussed the medium term financial strategy, which sets out how we will balance our books in the coming year. We are one of the few councils who have had successful long term financial plans despite massive Tory and Coalition government cuts and our budget has been balanced unlike comparable authorities. Nationwide, there are currently 11 councils under serious financial threat, including nine which are Conservative-run, as the result of massive national government cuts to local authority funding. Our debate was hampered by a Conservative councillor raising the same point of order on four occasions to object to the council leader criticising the national government's funding settlement as being irrelevant. I wonder sometimes if these councillors realise how childish this looks, especially when such serious issues are at stake.
As a Labour administration, we are doing our best both to control spending and to limit cuts to services. We heard a lot of anger from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats about our overspends on adult social care and children's services. I spoke briefly to make clear that while overspends in social care and child protection were regrettable they are not unique to Calderdale and are a result of consistent government underfunding of these vital areas and because the costs linked to putting children into group homes have been going up exponentially across the country. We should absolutely not be balancing the budget on the back of the most vulnerable in our community.
I was disappointed that as well criticising this overspend, both opposition parties also criticised long term investment projects, including the Piece Hall, that help the local economy.
When it came to the vote, both opposition parties opposed the medium term financial strategy and Labour supported it, creating a tie. The impact of this vote not being passed would have paused longer term financial planning including revenue raising activities that bring money in - which would have cost the council in the long term. In accordance with protocol in the event of a tie, the mayor supported the status quo and therefore the strategy passed. This can't have been easy for him as he was elected a Conservative councillor, but in casting his deciding vote he said it was important to avoid the reputational damage to Calderdale that a failure to agree a financial strategy would cause.
At this point the Conservative group walked out, leaving the other two groups to vote on the next matters for debate, until about ten minutes later when the Conservatives seemed to stage a 'walk-in' and crept sheepishly back to their seats.
Moving on to the motions, we first discussed a proposal from the Conservative group on air quality. Labour offered an amendment to correct factual errors and include specific support for Sowerby Bridge which has particularly bad air quality. This also called for national as well as local government action, including tackling diesel cars and public transport. With support from the Liberals this amendment was passed.
We then had a motion on devolution for Yorkshire. I think all councillors believed there is a need for more local accountability - however the original motion was over-specific on how a Yorkshire parliament should be implemented, right down to granular details such as the voting system. While I support the idea in principle, I feel that greater democracy should come about as a result of consultation with the public and not simply be imposed, down to this level of detail, by political leaders, and so supported the Labour amendment to this effect.
Rail Electrification Charter
I then proposed a motion calling for more government investment in our local rail service, and specifically for the council to support the Electrification Charter, a campaign by rail supporters including the Halifax And District Rail Action Group, asking the government to return to their 2015 commitment to put electric trains on our line.
This is something I've been campaigning on for over five years and my motion sought to redress this imbalance. The outdated pacer trains on our local line should be a national scandal. Electric trains would be more modern, enable a faster service, create less pollution and with the ability to accelerate and decelerate quicker at stations could mean more trains on the line - increasing the number of services through Brighouse for example.
The Conservative group proposed a wrecking amendment, which largely consisted of partisan attacks on the previous Labour government, praising the work of the current government, condemning Labour plans to bring rail under public ownership and failing to mention Calderdale commuters once.
In proposing the amendment, Councillor Benton accused me of politicising the issue - ironic as my speech and motion acknowledged both historic and current failures and did not focus on differing perspectives from different parties, while his speech mentioned the Tory government four times and Labour three times. The Conservative amendment was defeated in the vote, and the motion passed, partly because of support from the Liberal Democrats, but also because of the 19 Conservative councillors, only 10 actually remained to the end of the meeting - the others having left early.
See my speech on the electrification charter.