Householders face a council tax rise of 1.6 per cent from April after Bradford councillors voted through a budget that some called “making the best of a bad situation” but others argued asked people to pay more for less.
Although some of the more controversial proposals in the 2014/15 budget, including closing public toilets and children’s centres, were scrapped, the leader of the Labour-run authority warned cuts proposed by the Government could lead to the whole system of local government becoming “unsustainable”.
Up to 650 Council jobs are set to be axed as the authority faces Government budget cuts of £115 million over the next three years.
During an often heated debate lasting more than two hours at City Hall last night, councillors from different parties argued, not over whether cuts were needed, but where they should be made.
An alternative budget proposed by the opposition Conservative group failed to gain enough cross party support to dislodge Labour’s plan.
The 2014/15 budget will see Council Tax rise by an average of £3 a month for most households, and follows a 1.99 per cent tax rise last year.
At the start of the debate, Council leader David Green warned both other councillors and the Bradford public that pressures on the budget were so great, people would have to completely re-think what they expect from a council in the next few years.
“Bradford, like other Northern cities and districts has been disproportionately hit by central Government cuts,” he said.
“The cuts they are making will make the idea of a local authority unsustainable in the future.
“The choices the people of Bradford are having to consider are unpalatable, and damaging to the economic and social fabric of the district.
“The progress we have made over the years in schools, social care and other areas is being damaged by the slash and burn approach of the Department for Communities and Local Government.
“None of these proposals are ones we would make if we were masters of our own destiny.
“What we need to do is recognise the threat to local government being imposed by Whitehall.
“The status quo is no longer an option. We will need to have a grown up debate about what services people expect from a council and how we can deliver them.
“But we also have to make sure people know that if they want local services delivered by a local council for free, they will have to stand up and make their voice heard. When we have that debate I assure people we will listen to them.”
Coun Green told the meeting that since his group first announced its budget proposals in November, more than 15,000 people had had their say – including thousands who opposed planned cuts to children’s centres and the council youth service.
Thanks to these responses, the planned cuts of £3.2 million to the youth service over two years has been reduced to £1.45m.
Other high-profile cuts that will now not go ahead in the next 12 months include the closure of three children’s centres, thanks to support from the Bradford Schools Forum, and the closure of public toilets in Ilkley, Haworth and Baildon.
Ilkley’s Manor House Museum has also been spared the chop for 12 months, while the Council looks into ways it can be run by the community.
Coun Green added: “Despite us finding the money to save these services, I don’t want anyone to believe us finding this money has been painless – it doesnt mean there won’t be an effect on other services and jobs.
“These are not pennies from heaven – it comes from real people losing their jobs and real cuts to services.”
The Conservative group had proposed a freeze in Council Tax until 2017, maintaining all ward coverage for youth services, the merging of several council departments and ending the payment of salaries for full time union officials.
It proposed using £2m of Council reserves on road repairs, and setting up a team to help turn around failing schools – at a cost of £500,000.
But Coun Green said the Tory budget was short-sighted, and there was not enough evidence of where the money would come from.
He compared the party to the Charles Dickens character Mr Micawber – famous for his phrase “something will turn up”.
Coun Green added: “There is no policy – no long term thinking.”
Conservative group deputy leader, Councillor Simon Cooke, criticised the Council for only making its final version of the budget available on Tuesday.
He also criticised the Council Tax rise, adding: “We shouldn’t be charging people more money for less service.
“Critical services should be available in every community. We need to make choices about what is essential and what is just nice to have.”
He argued it was more important for the Council to retain services like children’s centres rather than have an environment and climate change department.
Liberal Democrat group leader, Councillor Jeanette Sunderland, acknowledged it must have been difficult for the Labour group to draw up a budget in the face of such cuts, but she said: “The starting point for this budget is so far from where we would want to be, and there are so many things missing from it like the number of empty homes.
“I’m not able to support this.”
Councillor Alyas Karmani, leader of the Bradford Independent Group, formerly the five Respect councillors, criticised the Government’s austerity measures, saying Bradford needed investment not cuts.
To the surprise of the Labour party, the group backed its budget, with Coun Karmani adding: “I’m against austerity, but this is the best of a bad job.”
As he was then heckled by opposition councillors, he added: “If we were in that position we’d be making exactly the same decisions.”
Green Party leader, Councillor Martin Love, said he doubted that cuts to local government would be stopped, no matter who is voted in in next year’s General Election.
He said the group would not be supporting the budget, but he appreciated the Council for listening to the public.
Council deputy leader, Councillor Imran Hussain, condemned the Conservatve group for publicly criticising the way the Council was being run but then not following up on some of its more controversial ideas.
“The Tories have been in the paper every week talking about getting rid of the chief executive, selling off artwork or going into our reserves,” said Coun Hussain.
“I was astonished when I picked up their budget proposals and there was no mention of any of these things. They seem to be silent in the areas they were shouting about the most.”
Conservative group leader, Councillor Glen Miller, responded: “First Labour frighten the district with the threat of big cuts, then they bring them down so they look like saviours.
“The Labour group say they want to bring the cost of living down in Bradford, but they’ve put the cost of living up by 1.6 per cent. Our budget shows you don’t need that increase.”
He said he hoped the Council would take some of his group’s defeated budget ideas on board.
Labour’s budget drew 53 votes for, 26 against and six abstentions – a majority of 27.