Thursday, 26 February 2015

Medway Budget Council Meeting 2015 – Predictions

In this dual-election year, I thought it might be worth placing on the public record my expectations in advance of this evening's budget-setting meeting of the full Medway Council. It's not because it will be momentous, but just worth having 'on file', so to speak, so that one can see after the event whether I was anywhere near accurate.

Of course it will follow the pattern of recent years in particular; and beyond that also, to some degree. The ruling group will present their well-structured budget, bemoaning the reductions in Government grant yet again that mean they are having to 'take difficult decisions. They will gloss over or ignore the mistakes that have been made in the last two or three years that have cost a lot of money, much of which would be said by most to have been wasted – though some of it was, in practice, unavoidable, but by no means all.

It is true that the Conservatives have been able to produce what are known as 'balanced budgets' for many years, though often using a number of wheezes in order to achieve that desired outcome each time. They have, to their credit, been more pragmatic than dogmatic, and that approach has consistently produced the proper 'bottom line', if only by the skin of their teeth on a few occasions!

On the official opposition side, the big difference this decade has been that the only Labour councillor here at Medway who has any idea about council finance, the estimable Cllr Glyn Griffiths, was removed from the position that made him their finance spokesman – deputy leader of the Labour group on the Council.

His replacement as deputy leader hasn't a clue (but is very 'mouthy') so their current group leader has taken it upon himself to double-up on the job of finance spokesman, even though he doesn't have all that much more of an idea than their deputy leader.

As I expected would happen once this structural change within Labour's councillors had occurred, their budget meeting speech in response to the budget proposals turned into an almost entirely irrelevant rant about national politics, point-scoring being the sole driver of most of what was said in these more recent years. The only exceptions were when they had a (Union-dictated) agenda to pursue at local level.

This year's such matters will be (predictably) the so-called 'living wage' and reduction in numbers of (Unionised, subscription-paying!) council staff. They will quote (especially on that first matter) what 'so many other councils, of all political persuasions, are already signed up to' – or similar wording, as if that has a direct bearing on what should happen here.

Incomes have gone up in the country in recent years, not by putting increased pressure on employers – which means fewer jobs affordable from the same-sized salaries pot – but through reduction in Income Tax and raised personal allowances. Note that an increased hourly rate for council staff would mean even more job reductions, directly contradicting Labour's other big policy plank this evening(!)

Purely locally, there is also the anticipated loss of the Fuse festival as an issue that Medway Labour have taken up – again, somewhat predictably..

I have sat through these events for years, and although Glynn's interminable rambling rants were tedious and a lot of what he said was irrelevant, at least some of it was applicable and he did inject some (usually fairly dry) humour into his budget speeches. All that mitigation has now gone, and the whole thing is orchestrated.

Each year a good-sized claque occupies the public gallery, and one can hear in the way Cllr Maple (the Labour group leader these days) uses tone of voice and significant pauses to try to get this (somewhat dim, it has to be said) group to cheer and appluad at the 'right' moments. They have been known to miss their cues several times, and it is a picture to watch Cllr Maple try to signal to them, in order to get the reaction he wanted the journalists in attendance to notice and report on.

Yes, it's all 'manufactured' – and will be more intense this year, as it is both a General Election year and also coincides with the Council's all-out local elections for the 55 seats on Medway Council.

Will the local media fall for it? Are they merely complicit and will go along with it anyway, even knowing the extent of the fakery and deceptions, the slants, selective statistics and the rest of it?

We shall know only when we read what they report after tonight's meeting. I shall be there, though, and I'll know exactly what was really going on!

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