County residents deserve better

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I ATTENDED the recent Northumberland County Council meeting to witness the deliberations of councillors and officers relating to the 2011-12 budget.

The main and most controversial issue was the proposal to make cuts of almost £47m across a range of services, areas of employment and statutory responsibilities.

The meeting was controversial since it was dealing with the future of county employees, and prior to this there was a sizable demonstration in front of County Hall to protest at budget proposals.

This being the case, I had expected an open, transparent and informed debate, where a decision would be taken after the issues contained in the budget had been thoroughly discussed.

However, it soon became clear that the meeting was simply an exercise in ‘going through the motions’.

It seemed to me that the decision to approve the budget had already been taken.

Many observers thought the Conservatives had agreed with the Liberal Democrat administration in advance to abstain when the vote on the budget was taken, thus allowing the budget to be voted through.

If this was true, it was a hypocritical strategy since they criticised many aspects of the budget strategy during the meeting but then allowed it through by abstaining.

The minority Labour group voted against the proposals.

The other feature of the meeting which I found astonishing was that neither the chief executive nor the council leader spoke or made any contribution to the debate during what is probably the most important meeting in the council calendar.

Only the administration spokesman for corporate affairs had anything to contribute.

One would have thought that either one or both of them would have given some sort of explanation of the strategy underlying the budget and the reasons for their decisions.

The whole idea seemed to be to get the budget through as quickly as possible with the minimum of discussion.

No one would ever pretend that making budget reductions is easy, and we are often told that ‘we are all in this together’, but to the man and woman in the street it certainly does not feel like this.

Members of the public feel a lot of local authority expenditure is wasteful and unnecessary.

For example, the salaries of senior officers are excessive and councillors’ expenses are over inflated.

This is not only the view of the general public as local government secretary Eric Pickles regularly berates councils for this situation.

During the past two years Northumberland County Council has paid out £2,267,000 in councillors’ allowances, and apart from the question of excessive salaries for senior officers, during the same period, the council has also spent £6,786,000 on travelling expenses and lump sum payments.

Another bone of contention with the general public is the huge amount money spent on consultants.

Here again during the past two years the council has paid out a massive £9,000,000.

Can all this expenditure really be justified when we are in the shadow of such draconian budget cutbacks?

Incidentally the figures which I have given above were obtained under the Freedom of Information act so I do not think that they can be disputed.

Finally I would say that everyone probably accepts that some budget reductions may be necessary and most people will understand that situation provided that those who are making the decisions come down from their ivory tower and show some leadership.

People will only have confidence in local government if it seen to be fair, capable and the burden sharing is evenly spread.

The people of Northumberland deserve better.

COUN DEREK THOMPSON

Former Chairman

Morpeth Town Council