Marvin Rees’s reworked budget is set to be approved despite criticism that he has “disregarded” the will of councillors.
Bristol City Council’s Conservatives have thrown their weight behind the Labour mayor’s spending plans after he incorporated several of their proposals, including restoring Kingsweston Iron Bridge and slashing the cost of bulky household item collections.
This is despite councillors voting to reject the Tories’ amendments at the first, aborted attempt to set the budget, on Tuesday, February 15, which ended in “stalemate” when Mr Rees chose to take his permitted five working days to review the changes.
If Labour and the Conservatives now join forces as expected at the second full council meeting on Wednesday, March 2, it would be enough for it to gain the simple majority required.
But Cllr Heather Mack, leader of the main opposition Greens, says that while the mayor has accepted some of her party’s amendments, other proposals that were likewise approved by full council last week, including reopening public toilets, have been quietly ditched, while the Tories’ ideas thrown out by councillors have been taken on.
Full council voted in favour of five opposition amendments at the first meeting – four from the Greens, one by Knowle Community Party but neither of the two sets of alterations from the Conservatives.
Mayoral model gives mayor ‘free reign to reject the will of majority’
Cllr Mack said the changes agreed would already have been adopted if Bristol had a committee system but that under the mayoral model Mr Rees had “free reign to reject the will of a majority of elected councillors”.
Residents get to decide which of the two systems they want in a referendum in May.
Cllr Mack said: “In last year’s local elections Bristol voted Green in record numbers – and this year Greens used our increased power in the council to make a significant difference to the mayor’s budget.
“We put forward sensible amendments to reverse some of the worst cuts proposed by Labour, including cuts to union support, charging for disabled parking bays and scrapping 30 minutes’ parking in residents’ parking areas.
“So I’m glad that our influence on the budget has led to the administration U-turning on these proposed cuts, and that Green amendments have also been accepted which will mean more investment in tackling illegal parking and more funding for residents’ parking schemes (RPSs) and ‘school streets’ projects that Bristol needs.
“However, it is disappointing to see the mayor disregard some amendments passed by full council at the budget meeting, which would have funded new public toilets across the city, invested millions of pounds into parks and neighbourhoods and supported Jubilee Pool’s community transfer.
“Under a committee system the council would have already adopted these amendments, but under the Mayoral system one person has free reign to reject the will of a majority of elected councillors.”
Cllr Andrew Brown, deputy leader of the Lib Dems, whose amendments were voted down, said: “We are disappointed that the mayor chose not to engage with groups from across the council chamber when deciding on alternative proposals. However, we note that he has adopted a number of proposals from amendments brought to council.
“We will be examining the detail over the next few days and deciding how to vote. Our preference would be for the budget, as democratically amended by last week’s council, to pass in the first vote of the night.”
An ‘alternative’ budget
The second budget meeting will begin with a debate and vote on the budget as amended by full council last time.
But this requires a two-thirds majority to pass because it does not have the mayor’s approval so is classed as an alternative budget, and Labour would have enough votes to block it even without the help of other groups.
If it falls, members will then vote on the mayor’s revised budget, which has 17 changes to the original version but still includes £19.5million of cuts in 2022/23 and £33million over the next few years.
Unlike before, it includes at least one new RPS with community support, more traffic wardens, one-off funding for Queen’s Jubilee fruit-tree planting, more money for parks and play equipment, and upgrades to local shopping centres and road junctions impacted by the massive Cribbs housing development, plus the Iron Bridge repairs.
The combined £205,000 cost of reducing fees from £25 to £15 for collecting three bulky household items and scrapping plans to charge residents for private disabled parking bays will be met from cuts to a non-staffing budget to the mayor’s office, with the intention to reinstate that money in future from an as-yet unidentified source.
Mr Rees has otherwise protected funding for the mayor’s office, City Office and the authority’s public relations.
But among the budget amendments passed at full council that Mr Rees has not included in his revised proposals are reopening public toilets, reducing £5.5million cuts to the council’s workforce by £1million and creating a loan facility for the new community management at Jubilee Pool in Knowle.
Absences aside, Labour’s 24 councillors, plus Mr Rees’s vote, combined with the Conservatives’ 14 members, not including lord mayor Cllr Steve Smith whose ceremonial role as full council chairman traditionally sees him vote only to split a tie, gives them 39 votes out of 70 – passing the 50% threshold.
Conservative group leader Cllr Mark Weston said: “Whilst very disappointed that our amendments fell at the first budget-fixing meeting thanks to opposition from the mayor and Green Party, we have had a productive exchange with the administration over the best way forward and made clear what our red lines would be in return for backing a revised proposal.
“My colleagues were particularly adamant over the need to resolve the stalled restoration of the Iron Bridge. However, it is pleasing to see that a lot of our other major asks have also been included in the altered budget proposals.
“Here, the increased funding for transport improvements linked to the Cribbs Patchway New Neighbourhood and extra investment in high streets and our parks are significant and welcome.
“These changes, together with other incorporated content such as the retention of 30 minutes’ free parking in RPSs, have been endorsed by my group so I would expect to see this new consensus to be reflected in the final voting next week.”