What now for Stoke-on-Trent City Council after shock vote against budget?


Last week I suggested that interesting times might be ahead at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and lo and behold, my prediction proved accurate.

On Thursday city councillors voted to reject the proposed budget – something which, as far as I know, has never happened here before – leaving a huge question mark over the authority’s immediate future.

Councils have to set their budget and council tax rate for the following year by March 11 – failure to do so means an authority is breaking the law, and will certainly result in central government intervention.

Stoke-on-Trent’s elected members will have another go at passing a budget on Friday, perilously close to that deadline.

The reason for this unprecedented state of affairs was the ‘rebellion’ of six City Independents councillors against their Conservative coalition partners. This group, City Independents leader and deputy council leader Ann James, joined the Labour opposition in voting down the budget.

Their main gripe was the proposed review of workers’ terms and conditions, which would axe the extra payments some staff receive for working evenings and weekends, saving the council £934,000 a year. According to trade unions, who have threatened strike action over the issue, the worst affected workers would be left thousands of pounds worse off.

Labour group members joined the protests outside Stoke Town Hall

So now alternative proposals will have to be found which will garner enough support to pass full council on Friday.

How this will be achieved in the next few days is unclear – as I’ve said, this has never happened before so we’re in uncharted territory.

On the one hand, only two City Independents need to change sides to allow the budget to pass. But then again, £934,000 is a lot of money to find down the back of the sofa at the last minute.

During the debate on Thursday, the Conservative and City Independent councillors who supported the budget warned of the potentially dire consequences of voting it down, and this shouldn’t be dismissed as scaremongering.

They gave Northamptonshire County Council as an example of what happens when a local authority is unable to manage its finances. Northants effectively declared itself insolvent in 2018, and the goverment eventually decided that the council’s problems were so intractable that they could only be solved through its abolition and replacement by two smaller authorities.

There is no immediate danger of something similar happening in Stoke-on-Trent – Northants faced a £10 million overspend in 2018, whereas the dispute at the city council is over less than £1 million. I expect that some sort of fudge will be found to get the budget over the line on Friday. A solution should be found that will satisfy enough City Independents (although probably not the unions, nor the Labour group).

But even if the budget deadlock is broken, there are other problems ahead for the city council.

Councils must set their council tax by March 11
Councils must set their council tax by March 11

For one thing, where does Thursday’s budget vote leave the Conservative-City Independent coalition? One or two backbench councillors rebelling is one thing, but it’s an entirely different matter when two cabinet members, including the deputy council leader, vote against the administration they are a part of.

The coalition partners, who have been running the council since 2015, renewed their arrangement after last year’s local elections. But it always seemed that Mrs James and some of her City Independent colleagues – now the junior partners in the coalition – did so reluctantly, due to a lack of other options.

Can the Tories and Independents kiss and make up after the budget issue is resolved? Or does this effectively spell the end of the coalition? If so, could the Conservatives continue as a minority administration? They’re the senior partners in the coalition, following a surge in Tory votes last time, but they still only hold 15 out of 44 seats.

Another three budgets will need to be passed by the full council before the next elections are due in 2023. So could the current budget impasse be a sign of things to come?

This sort of political instability does not reflect well on the council, or the city, especially at a time when government ministers are considering multi-million pound funding bids from Stoke-on-Trent. So for the city’s sake, its elected councillors will need to resolve their differences. And they’ll need to do it soon.





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