At the first Full Council meeting of the new municipal year, and with a new administration in place, there was an opportunity for the conduct of the proceedings to be different – more positive, and more in the interests of the people of Derby. Sadly, this was not really the case. Just more tedious party politicking which sapped up the majority of the 3hrs+ meeting.
Whilst all parties play politics, it is clear that the Labour Group are doing this in a much more co-ordinated way – far more so than the Conservatives ever achieved. However, for a group that has just lost power, the chosen targets seemed a little misguided, and the arguments poorly thought through….resulting in a series of “own goals”.
Universal Credit (UC)
UC has been planned for implementation in Derby from before the May 2018 elections. There is no doubt that UC is causing many people a lot of hardship, across the country, principally from the significant delays in the first payments being made. Claiming any benefit is complicated, and UC is, reportedly, not easy, which, in itself, can be a barrier to claiming. But UC is not within the control of Derby City Council.
The implementation of UC, per se, is not the issue that the Labour Group are raising with the new Conservative administration. It was around whether some / all of the budget underspend of £2.845m from 2017/18 year could be transferred into a Welfare Reform Reserve, as opposed to a Budget Risk reserve – both non- earmarked reserves. In reality this is a technical subtlety which makes no difference as to whether people struggling with UC are supported by the Council, or not, or whether additional resources are made available. It is a non-debate.
This proposal was based on a false premise that there was an underspend in 2017/18. There was no underspend! In actual fact, the Council had to take less from reserves last year to balance the budget – in other words, it was less of an overspend.
If this was such a major issue for the Labour administration why did they not provision some of the £40m+ that was transferred to reserves during their time in office, into one for Welform Reform and provision well-ahead of time?
At last night’s Council meeting, 3 of the 4 public questions ( from 3 Labour local election candidates) related to Universal Credit and 2 from Councillors, as well as a Motion brought by the Leader, Cllr Eldret and a “protest” outside the Council House just before the meeting.
The sole objective of this campaign was to direct the transfer of some money ( the motion did not call for the full extent of the “underspend” to be used) into a reserve which, in itself, would achieve nothing. The debate should have been around whether the plans and actions to mitigate the risk of any negative impacts were robust enough….something that, presumably, the previous administration were already well-advanced on?
A52 – Independent examination of the reasons for the £15m overspend
As it seems that no one within the Council can explain, at a basic level, why there has been such a significant overspend on the A52 project and why no one knew anything about it, an audit of the process and procedures was called for.
At the Executive Scrutiny meeting last month the Labour group proposed that it should be done by independent, external auditors – which I agree with. The cross-party meeting voted against this proposal ( albeit by the Chair’s casting vote); the advice of the external auditors and the Chief Finance Officer was that an internal examination was sufficient. In the event that this proved not to be the case, then the option was still left open for an external review.
Despite this decision, the question was raised by the Labour group in the subsequent Cabinet meeting, which was dismissed, and now at Full Council…which was also rejected. Now it seems to have become a point of political contention with passions flaring as to why there is no independent external audit.
This relates to an overspend that happened during the last administration. The Cabinet Member, at the time ( Cllr Afzal), freely admits that he knew nothing of the problem until after the election which is a tacit acceptance of his personal incompetence to hold that office.
It was reported at the meeting by Cllr Holmes, that an external investigation would cost in the region of £1m, whereas an internal review would be carried out by local resources.
The emotion exhibited by the Labour members, and supporters, seems very artificial on this issue. It is being presented as a binary debate for political reasons when it would be more reasonable to accept that both angles have their merits. £1m is a lot to spend on something which should easily be resolved by anyone acting independently.
Clean Air Zones
A motion was raised by Cllr Rawson to highlight that the Council has only until September 2018 to formally declare to Central Government the policy for tackling air quality within the City. This is a known fact in the public domain. The Conservative administration has ruled out any form of Emissions charge ( referred to as a Congestion charge) and the Scrappage scheme proposed by the previous administration. Apparently DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) described the previous proposals as “derisory” hence the need for alternative options.
What this motion, and the subsequent debate, highlighted was that the previous Council did nothing of consequence on this subject for 2 years; it was reported in the media in December 2017 that the DEFRA Minister was concerned about the Council’s lack of urgency on this matter. The scrappage scheme was presented in March 2018 by…..Cllr Afzal!
It is always going to be difficult to be in opposition when a new administration takes control as any issues probably derive from the efforts of the previous incumbents. A sensible approach would be to be cautious over which battles to have and to ensure that the “blame” can be pinned squarely on the actions of the current ruling group. It is still too early for that.
It seems that the Labour group are trying too hard to be “in opposition”, and picking “fights in their own backyard”. They have been more successful in scoring “own goals” than unpicking Conservative policies. Hopefully this will change in the interests of the people of Derby.
Categories: Derby City Council