The viral video of the chaos of Handforth Council has alerted the nation to a well kept secret – council meetings can be far more lively and entertaining than you might believe them to be.
Pre-empting any ‘kerfuffle’, Bristol mayor Marvin Rees attempted to impose discipline on this year’s budget-setting session from the off. With this being the last such exercise before local elections, due in May, he warned of “the temptation to make the usual council bunfights”.
But while opposition parties gamely presented their amendments, the four-hour meeting ended predictably with the budget narrowly passing on party lines. Similarly, Labour was able to use its majority on the council to stop the passage of all the amendments except the party’s own.
Twelve-odd years of austerity meant that in terms of revenue spending the council has relatively little room for manoeuvre. This meant that of the £424m budget presented, 99.5% was uncontested. In the absence of major disagreement over spending choices, Marvin based his pitch on competence, saying: “I think back on the £30m hole in the budget that we inherited… this budget gets the basics right.”
Similarly the deputy Mayor with responsibility for finance, Craig Cheney, said: “The reality of 12 years of austerity means very few decisions can be done without a decision to deprioritise something else.”
The lack of wriggle room on local service spending came through in the relatively minor opposition amendments where the Lib Dems and Tories appealed for more money for playground repairs, defibrillator signposts and free parking at Blaise Castle. Labour’s own group asked for more money to fund seven extra waste enforcement officers, prompting Mark Weston to recount a memorable story about picking up “80 bags of [dog] faeces in just 30 minutes!”
The opposition often targeted the costs of the mayor’s office and what they called “money for PR” – and what the administration called “consultation services” – to pay for these activities. It was clear all parties had May’s local elections in mind.
Other proposals for extra special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) funding were met by a response that this was allocated “according to a complex central government formula”. Again the message was that councillors had no capacity to make big changes to the budget.
‘We shouldn’t raise rents in the run-up to the election’
The most dramatic moment in the whole meeting came when Labour’s Nicola Bowden-Jones, speaking in favour of a motion she co-sponsored with the Green Party, angrily accused her colleagues of undermining the programme to build more council housing by proceeding with a short-term rent freeze.
“Let’s be honest – this council rent freeze has nothing to do with coronavirus or helping people on low incomes,” Jones said. “I’ve been at the Labour group meetings where speaker after speaker supporting the freeze starts by saying, ‘Ooh, we shouldn’t raise rents in the run-up to the election’.”
Her claims were dismissed as “untruths” and “unfair slurs” by Cheney, who insisted council housing rents were being frozen because of hardship caused by the pandemic.
Jones said Labour group members had been threatened with deselection in the forthcoming election if they did not vote with the administration – perhaps a factor in her being unable to get significant numbers to join her rebellion? In any case, the amendment failed, as did a proposal by the Greens’ Martin Fodor to reallocate £3.5m from a development levy towards liveable streets, cycle lanes and improvements to parks.
With debate among councillors on day-to-day spending reduced, basically, to questions of who could be the most competent managers, the most interesting and consequential implications of the council’s strategy arguably came from its plans for capital investment. The authority’s documents outline £907m of capital spending for the next five years, including building council housing, money for the Bristol Beacon, flood defences at Avonmouth, school building, implementing the Clean Air Zone, as well as millions for general maintenance of all the council’s properties.
But the truly eye-watering sums come from initiatives where the council is aiming to partner with the private sector. This includes a target of attracting £1bn to decarbonise via the City Leap initiative, ambitious redevelopment proposals for around Temple Meads and plans, which are currently on ice, to lend £23m in cash and land to the council’s arms-length development company Goram Homes. Such initiatives are perhaps the only route for creativity available to councils whose core funding has been cut to the bone. Rees is clearly more excited by working in that domain, telling councillors on Tuesday that there is a “gulf between the quality of conversation that we have here and that which we have in the City Office”.
Yet while the prospect of attracting all this inward investment is exciting, the exotic entrepreneurial structures the council has embraced, as well as the need for commercial confidentiality, shovel responsibility into the hands of the mayor and executive officers in a way that weakens the ability of councillors to provide democratic oversight.
The failures of Bristol Energy, and the growing controversy over the Western Harbour development, show some of the risks that lie behind the glossy prospectuses. One paradox of this situation is that to mitigate against the inherent risks to council taxpayers in these sort of corporate contracts, the council has already approved £962,000 of financial advice from Deloitte and EY, and over £1m in legal fees from Burges Salmon.
Rees said that what matters is “getting things done”. This budget suggests that his administration has decided that the way they can do this, in the context of the neoliberal British state, is to go outside of the council’s structures, which Rees compared to “an old Victorian fairground machine”, to seek injections of private capital.