Councillors have voted down Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s £9.2 million budget cuts – leaving the authority’s spending plans in chaos.
On a day of high drama at Stoke Town Hall, the full council voted 22 to 19 against approving the Conservative-City Independents’ controversial budget proposals for 2020/21.
Several members of the City Independents group, including their leader and deputy council leader Ann James, joined the Labour opposition in rejecting the budget.
Many of the councillors said their main problem was the proposal to slash the extra payments council workers receive for working weekends and evenings in order to save £934,000.
Trade unions members staged another noisy protest against the cuts ahead of the meeting, and packed the public gallery during the meeting.
Following the voting down of the budget – an unprecedented move which was met by a roar of approval from the public gallery – councillors agreed to adjourn the meeting until March 6. The council has to set its budget and council tax for the coming year by the legal deadline of March 11.
Labour group leader Mohammed Pervez said the vote was a ‘wake-up call’ for council leader Abi Brown and Conservative group. He also praised the City Independents who voted with his group.
Mr Pervez said: “This budget defeat for the Conservatives is a strong message that their dictatorship rule will not be tolerated.
“Vital services are being annihilated and the lowest paid staff are being targeted. Litter and flytipping is plaguing our streets and alleyways yet we are seeing very little action from this council. We cannot let the Conservatives do this to our city. We need fairness, openness and transparency.
“I applaud the few truly independent councillors for making a stand against these vicious cuts.”
In introducing the budget at the start of the meeting, Mrs Brown said the city council was facing financial pressures due to government funding cuts and rising demand for services such as social care.
The proposed council tax hike of 3.99 per cent includes a two per cent ringfenced precept for funding adult social care.
But Mrs Brown said the authority’s ‘ambitious’ capital programme, which includes spending millions on new housing and infrastructure, would grow the city’s economy and generate increased income from council tax and business rates.
Mrs Brown said: “We are now spending 61 per cent of our budget on services for vulnerable children and adults, a 55 per cent increase over the last 10 years.
“We are in a challenging position, but it’s not one that we’re in alone. Councils across the country are having to make similar decisions.”
The cuts to workers’ terms and conditions proved to be the most controversial proposal for many councillors.
Some said that it would leave some of the council’s lowest paid workers more than £3,000 a year worse off, echoing concerns previously raised by the trade unions.
Unison, Unite and the GMB had warned that they would ballot their members on industrial action if the council approved the cuts.
Labour councillor Shaun Pender suggested that families with two council employees could lose up to £8,000 a year from their household income. His colleague David Williams warned there would be a ‘real summer of discontent’ if the cuts went ahead.
Birches Head and Central Forest Park councillor Jean Bowers was among the City Independents who voted against the budget. She feels her group was not involved enough in the budget discussions, and hopes that will now change.
Speaking after the meeting, Mrs Bowers said: “I voted against the budget because it isn’t fair, there hasn’t been enough consultation so we’ve had less time to look at it.
“The bottom line is that we have a duty of care to our residents. A lot of these workers are care workers and it’s the elderly who are going to be the worst affected. They’re going to have to pay extra for their lifelines, and it’s not on.”
The City Independent rebels also included Joanne Powell-Beckett, cabinet member for housing.
But during the meeting the Conservative and City Independent members who supported the budget warned of the consequences of rejecting the proposals.
Randy Conteh, cabinet member for communities and safer city, said: “The consequences of voting against this will be 10 times worse than voting for it. I’m talking about the reputational damage to the council – our reputation within the very government that you want us to ask for more funding.”
Dave Evans, cabinet member for children, warned that if the council was unable to pass a budget, spending decisions for the city would be taken by central government.
And veteran Conservative councillor Ross Irving said the authority’s current terms and conditions were ‘unsustainable in the modern economy’ and that workers should not have to rely on extra payments to get by.
The proposed budget also included proposals to close small group homes for children in care, reduce spending on drug and alcohol services by £1 million and close four local centres. There are also proposals to increase bulky waste collection charges to £40 and review the Shopmobility service.
New savings may now have to be proposed in order to produce a budget that will gain enough support on March 6.
Council chiefs had already agreed to amendments to two budget lines – relating to Meir Library and the SENDIASS service for children with special needs. Hundreds of people signed a petition against the latter.
A city council spokesman said: “The budget proposals were not agreed at today’s budget council. This means that the budget will be discussed at a reconvened meeting on March 6, 2020.
“The budget process includes setting the council tax for the city for 2020/21. Under the Local Government Act 1992, the council has a duty to set council tax for the financial year ahead before March 11 2020.
“It is the duty of all councillors to come together to set a budget and council tax. There will be many discussions over the coming days to work to reach proposals that can be considered at the reconvened meeting.”