Councillors have voiced their anger after receiving official advice not to vote against mayor Marvin Rees’s budget – and warning of potential legal consequences if they do.
A three-page briefing note emailed to all 69 Bristol city councillors from two top officers says they should consider abstaining rather than opposing any part of the budget they do not support and that they could be in breach of the member code of conduct if they fail to set a balanced budget.
The letter has sparked outrage and claims of political “interference”, with current and former councillors from all parties, including Labour, saying such “strongly worded” guidance is unprecedented.
It was sent out on Friday, February 11, ahead of full council on Tuesday (February 15) where the annual budget is due to be set, and has been seen by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).
Tensions have been ramped up ahead of the Bristol City Council meeting amid criticism of the mayor’s proposals, which include scrapping 30-minute free parking, closing South Bristol Rehab Centre and job cuts, along with a looming council seat by-election on Thursday and mayoral model referendum in May.
But the crucial difference to previous years is that Labour no longer has a majority in the chamber, following last May’s local elections when the Greens made huge gains, so can no longer push the budget through without cross-party support.
Consequences of voting against the budget could be ‘legal, financial and reputational’
It is understood that this led to a request for clarification on the legal situation if the budget encountered an impasse, and resulted in the advice to elected members, signed by two city council directors, monitoring officer Tim O’Gara and chief finance officer Denise Murray.
It said: “Councillors must be able to demonstrate that they have acted reasonably if they decide not to adopt the [mayor’s budget] recommendations. However, councillors should not act in a way that deliberately prevents the council from setting a balanced budget.
“In practice, if councillors do not wish to support the mayor’s budget then councillors should consider recording their lack of support by abstaining from the vote on those parts of the budget that they do not support.
“The consequences of voting against the budget, rather than abstaining, could be legal, financial and reputational.”
It warned that the local authority would incur “serious financial losses very soon from a late setting of the budget”.
The letter said: “A failure to set a balanced budget is clearly a governance failing and would almost certainly attract attention from government and the media.
“The secretary of state has the power to intervene where a council fails to set a balanced budget, which carries reputational issues.
“In terms of reputational issues for individual councillors, given their collective responsibility to ensure that the council sets a balanced budget, if it can be demonstrated that councillors acted deliberately to prevent the council from setting a balanced budget then this could be seen as a breach of the member code of conduct, eg, behaving in accordance with the council’s legal obligations, bringing the role of a councillor into disrepute, having due regard to professional advice of officers.”
Green group leader Cllr Heather Mack told the LDRS: “You would think that as Greens now have more councillors than Labour, who lack the votes to pass their own budget, Bristol’s Labour administration would work with us on critical issues like this.
“However, it seems that instead of working with other parties on the budget, the Labour administration wants to simply demand they allow the budget to pass.
“Green councillors understand our legal responsibilities, but we have concerns about the appropriateness of the advice that has been provided. Nothing will stop Greens voting with our conscience on an important budget which contains millions of pounds of cuts while adding more money than is required to the council’s reserves.”
She said the group had proposed £6million of amendments to “stop some of the worst cuts” and improve neighbourhoods, which she hoped Labour would back.
Lib Dem Cllr Tim Kent wrote on Twitter: “I cannot ever recall an officer trying to so directly influence a councillors’ vote in such a way. As is clearly stated, the council has nearly a whole month to set the budget. In fact, the legal requirement is to set the council tax and certain other items.
“I am very surprised at the level of interference in the democratic process by this note. I think it clearly shows the influence of the mayoral model though and why this fails this city.”
Conservative Cllr Graham Morris tweeted: “I can’t recall receiving this type of instruction before in my six years on council. If it is guidance then we should have had this annually but the timing raises real cause for concern.”
Labour Cllr Mark Bradshaw posted: “Can’t recall receiving such a strongly worded ‘guidance’ document pre-budget.”
He said it seemed to conflate the legal requirement to set a lawful budget with democratic need for robust and thorough debate and consideration of amendments as well as the executive’s proposals.
Former Green Cllr Charlie Bolton tweeted: “It never happened in my time,” adding it was an “outrage”.
The city council, mayor’s office and Labour group have been asked to comment.