You would expect me to say that, wouldn’t you? But actually I’m rather disappointed in them. I expected a coherent set of arguments and reasoned alternative budget from them. Instead, it seemed every time one of them stood up to speak we got a slightly different line, and that is slightly worrying – for one because it’s always good to have a strong opposition.
“Raise tax, no, lower it, no, raise it.”
The council presented a strong budget. We are keeping the council tax at the same level as last year, because of savings we have made we are still able to increase spending and put some money into contingency. Perfectly sensible given that a lot of people are expecting a prolonged recession and worse times to come. But, of course, you can argue if that’s the right thing. If you think the recession is going to be short and shallow you might think extra spending or a cut in tax preferable.
It was clear the Labour party hadn’t decided what they thought was best. Their formal amendment suggested putting nothing into contingency, creating about 50 jobs for a year (by my count, Tony Belton, their leader, put it at 30) and reviewing charging levels for various services. But during the course of the evening some of the members suggested the contingency could be used to cut council tax, some suggested that taxes should be higher so spending could increase, one – during the course of his contribution – suggested we should both lower and raise council tax. They may have put a formal amendment to council, but it seemed they’d not agreed it amongst themselves.
Big state to the rescue?
But it was also clear they were convinced that a big state could solve all problems. One of their Tooting councillors complained bitterly that the council were, only now, cleaning up Tooting’s alleyways and attempted to give credit for this to Sadiq Khan. Yes, we are cleaning up the alleyways as part of Tooting Together, but these are private alleyways, owned by the businesses that are frequently dumping the rubbish on them. We are stepping in and cleaning up because the owners have not taken responsibility – but somehow the council is the bad guy on this one.
And dog fouling raised its ugly head. It seems Labour believe the council doesn’t have the country’s largest dog control unit in the country, but actually have the country’s biggest state-owned pack of hounds, specially trained to go and foul our pavements. Again, a fundamental belief that problems are not shared by the community but there to be solved by the state. The idea that somehow a dog fouling the pavement is the council’s fault rather than the owner’s or even the dog’s is risible, but somehow this was trotted out as an argument against the council’s budget.
To be honest, the most coherent solution put forward was by Tony Belton: it’s like the 1930s, he reasoned, and that wasn’t solved by Keynes, but by 10 years of depression and a world war. So this is Brown’s plan B! I haven’t been able to divine any other plan from Labour either locally or nationally, and I might rest easier if I knew they had some ideas rather than the current floundering.
It’s up to all of us
Implicit in the council’s budget, and in the council’s recession response, is that we help people to help themselves. Perhaps we do not push that enough, and Malcolm Grimston made a thoughtful contribution to evening (probably the most thoughtful speech of the night) highlighting that, actually, many the solution to many problems lies not with the council or government, but very simple actions by ordinary people. Of course it’s right for the council to help, and it was shameful for the Labour party to vote against our recession support, but we need to be aware that we all can play a part.
It might yet prove that one of the benefits of recession and environmental crisis is that we all come out of it a bit more thoughtful of our impact on our communities.