Councillors have approved a budget at the second time of asking – after controversial plans to slash workers’ pay were dropped.
Elected members at Stoke-on-Trent City Council dramatically voted down the authority’s budget proposals last week, after six City Independents rebelled against their Conservative coalition partners.
But following a week of talks, council chiefs agreed to scrap a proposed review of workers’ terms and conditions – the rebels’ main gripe – which would have saved £934,000 by cutting the extra payments staff receive for working weekends and evenings.
This amendment meant the budget was passed at a resumed full council meeting on Friday, thanks to the votes of Conservative and City Independent councillors, just five days before the March 11 legal deadline.
The Labour opposition still voted against the budget, but it was passed 27 votes to 14.
The resulting £934,000 budget gap will be met by reducing the proposed contribution to reserves from £5 million to £4.1 million.
Labour group leader Mohammed Pervez suggested this could be a way of removing the T&Cs cut from the budget at last week’s meeting.
But Conservative council leader Abi Brown told councillors using money meant for reserves to balance the budget could only be a ‘temporary measure’ and more sustainable savings would have to be found.
She welcomed the council’s vote to approve the budget following ‘honest conversations’ with the City Independents, and said last week’s vote demonstrated why councillors, specifically the coalition members, had to work together to address the authority’s financial challenges.
Mrs Brown said: “The sort of decisions we’re facing make it very challenging. I guess the lesson to take from this is the need for all councillors to come together to talk about the very real challenges that we face. We have to make some difficult decisions.
“This is an ongoing challenge for us as a council in terms of needing to ensure we are sustainable. I need to emphasise to colleagues that we cannot keep taking money out of reserves. We have to transform, or we have to make decisions over what is and isn’t acceptable to us.
“In the face of the challenge we had last week, we’ve had an opportunity to come together as a coalition and discuss what opportunities there were. I’ll be keen to capitalise on that collegiate nature moving forward to see where there are areas of common agreement.”
The Unison, Unite and GMB unions campaigned vigorously against the proposed cuts to T&Cs, which they said would leave some of the council’s lowest paid workers, including care staff, thousands of pounds a year worse off.
Labour councillors welcomed the decision to remove the T&Cs review, but said they still could not support the budget due to the other cuts it contained.
The amended budget still includes £8.3 million of savings, including a £1 million cut to drug and alcohol services and the closure of five children’s homes, along with a 3.99 per cent council tax hike.
Mr Pervez said: “Last week’s meeting was a historic one, in that I don’t think there has been an occasion where a budget put forward by the administration was ever rejected.
“This Conservative administration was defeated, and they’re now having to bring back the budget with the attack on terms and conditions taken out. They have taken on board the idea I put to full council at the last meeting.
“This I welcome, and my sincere congratulations go to the campaigners and the unions for highlighting the true impact of the cuts.
“However, unfortunately there are many things in this budget that I cannot support. The list is endless: front line services are being annihilated, people are having to pay more to get less from the council.”
A number of Labour councillors raised concerns that the cuts to T&Cs would be brought back later in the year, due to a line in the amended budget saying how ‘sustainable ongoing savings proposals totalling £934,000’ would be developed.
But Mrs Brown suggested that these savings could be achieved through measures such as cutting overtime and the use of agency staff.
The six City Independent councillors who voted against the budget last week, who included group leader Ann James and fellow cabinet member Joanne Powell-Beckett, made it clear that they would only support it if the cuts to T&Cs were removed.
Councillor Lee Wanger, who was also among the six, said he backed the amended budget.
He said: “As one of the so-called rebels who voted against this budget last week, I would like to say that I actually fully support this amended budget, only so far as I regard it as a stop gap – a one-year breathing space. I hope we will use that time to talk to the unions and come up with a solution.
“We should also use that time to look at the other proposals that were put on the table for making savings, and see if they hold water. We should also lobby our MPs for fairer funding. Otherwise I can see us back again next year doing the exact same thing again.”
Similar cuts to workers’ terms and conditions, which aimed to save £600,000, were approved as part of the city council’s budget in 2016/17. But the proposals were eventually dropped more than a year later following continued union resistance.