Thursday, 24 February 2011

Mindful of all the presentations I have seen by representatives of the Voluntary Groups in our District, and the people I have met from those Groups, I thought I would say why I abstained from voting in support of the HDC Cabinet’s Budget 2011/12 and Medium Term Plan 2012 – 15 at last night’s full Council Meeting.

Prior to the vote, Council considered an amendment proposed by Liberal Democrat Leader Peter Downes. It asked that (a) The Council acknowledges the invaluable role of the voluntary sector in promoting well-being in Huntingdonshire (b)The Council welcomes the intention of the Executive Councillor for Finance and Customer Services to undertake a review of the way in which the Council offers support to local voluntary organisations (c) The Council recognises the need for the voluntary sector to have long term security for its forward planning and activity development; and (d) The Council requests the Cabinet to identify alternative savings to allow the financial support for the voluntary sector to be retained when the Medium Term Plan is reviewed during the coming year.

The brief debate which followed was interesting.

The first three parts to the proposal garnered a lot of support from all sides. Indeed, one Conservative Councillor said that those first three parts were a “no-brainer”. But when it came to the vote, whilst those three parts were accepted, the fourth was voted down. In my mind, the first three points are intentions – the fourth is a commitment. What’s more, if, as Council agreed, “Council recognised the need for long term security” surely that means FINANCIAL security? What else could it mean? To me, you can’t agree to (c) without following it up with (d). Since the Medium Term Plan sees 81% cuts in the Voluntary Groups’ financial support, and since we were being asked to vote for the Budget AND Medium Term Plan, as one, I could not support it.

In response to the Government's requirement for Local Authorities to publish new items of spending over £500, the job of scrutiny is made much clearer. The HDC website now contains summaries of expenditure for the months from April to December 2010, during which time £739,000 was spent on External Consultants, £368,000 on Hired Staff (temps), £56,000 on Mobile Telephones and Radios and £128,000 on Training. We learned that even in the Budget that was passed last night, just over £500,000 is earmarked for Consultants, £369,000 for Hired Staff , £375,000 for training and £49,000 for Mobile Phones.

Whilst I very much welcome that a review will take place during 2011, to see what help can be offered to the Voluntary Groups, I remain disappointed that cuts of such a magnitude are still planned in 2013 and onwards. The MTP is, it has been stressed, a “living document”.

A comment was made during the discussions on the Voluntary Sector that Councillors should “Get Real”

If we are to believe, and why shouldn’t we, that opportunities for volunteers will be lost if these cuts go ahead, then we need planning, commitment, scrutiny and a willingness to make sure the cuts do not need to be made, assuming that’s what is meant by Big Society.

That’s reality !