WITH the clock ticking for Monmouthshire councillors who have failed to reach agreement on a budget and council tax rise for the upcoming financial year, opposition parties are now working alongside the administration to seek a compromise.
Councils in Wales are required to have their spending plans and council tax levels in place by Saturday, March 11 which effectively means the end of the working day on Friday.
As Monmouthshire council, for the first time, has failed to agree a budget councillors must return to County Hall, in Usk, this Thursday, for another attempt to pass the cabinet’s spending plans and set the council tax.
A failure to reach agreement would be unprecedented according to the WLGA, the umbrella group for Welsh councils but opposition leader, Cllr Richard John, has previously warned failing to pass a budget could see the council become insolvent with a ban on all but essential spending.
Opposition councillors say they are working alongside MCC’s Labour administration to ensure sure that the authority can pass a budget by Friday, March 10.
Conservative leader Cllr Richard John told the Chronicle, “While we’re unhappy with many areas of the administration’s budget, we are talking to them about the changes that could be made to ensure that the council can approve a budget before the legal deadline at the end of this week.
“We are very mindful of the dangers of the council failing to set a budget by the legal deadline at the end of this week, which would be unprecedented anywhere in Wales. We are actively talking to the administration about how we can seek agreement in a number of areas to alleviate the impact of their original proposals on children and frontline services.”
Councils in Wales are required to have their spending plans and council tax levels in place by Saturday, March 11, which effectively means the end of the working day on Friday.
As Monmouthshire Council, for the first time, has failed to agree a budget, councillors must return to County Hall in Usk, this Thursday, March 9 for another attempt to pass the cabinet’s spending plans and set the council tax.
That is despite three hours of debate on Thursday, March 2 over plans for a budget with £10 million worth of cuts and a 5.95 per cent hike in the council tax.
A failure to reach agreement would be unprecedented according to the umbrella group for Welsh councils the WLGA.
Conservative opposition leader, Cllr Richard John, has previously warned failing to pass a budget could see the council become insolvent with a ban on all but essential spending.
The Welsh Local Government Association has said in a situation where a council doesn’t agree a budget public services would continue to operate but the most obvious impact however could be council tax bills hitting doormats later than usual, althought the demands would still be issued –eventually.
A spokesman for the WLGA said: “All authorities will be setting a budget by March 9. Any delay might impact on billing but would not impact on services. Its uncharted territory, but should this transpire, the authority would have to set a council tax.”
Last week’s budget was defeated on the combined votes of the Conservative and Independent groups who had pushed for an extraordinary meeting of the council, warning the original schedule would risk the council missing the legal deadline if no agreement could be found.
But what transpired was something of a Mexican standoff at County Hall where the Independent Group sought to force a vote where the council would agree to order the cabinet to think again but the minority Labour administration held firm in putting its budget forward and challenging the council to vote it down.
The end result however is the cabinet has to come back and again seek approval for its budget.
Oppostition councillors highlighted their concerns with the proposed budged, with Independent Group leader Frances Taylor warning that ‘unacceptable’ social care changes, could see some paying more for care, and adding that she was unconvinced by the plan to use £1m from reserves so that those changes are delayed by a year.
The Conservatives suggested the council could consider asset transfers, where buildings such as leisure centres or libraries are handed over to community groups to run, and encourage community councils to up their precepts so they could afford to take on more services.
Cllr Alistair Neill sugested a volunteering scheme for council employees, which he said could provide “thousands of days” of free labour a year, with similar schemes already running in Caerphilly and Surrey.
“Staff could chose from a variety of options but that should include litter picking,” he said.
However, neither the Conservatives or the Independent Group made any firm proposals or suggested amendments that could be voted on and their position on the council tax rise was also muted.
The council’s deputy leader Paul Griffiths said the cabinet had already responded to concerns as a result of its consultation and claimed opponents were now accusing the administration of “not knowing our minds and making u-turns”.
He commented that the challenge facing the council is a five per cent shortfall between the amount its funded, from both Welsh Government and the council tax increase, and how much its costs will increase.
He further added that the council is proposing changes to social care “to take control” of a budget that rose by more than £6m in the current year and said some of the Conservative proposals could be considered.
But he said: “Community asset transfers fail when councils try to hand over serious liabilities to volunteers that can’t cope, can be done but not in a year.”
Despite a lack of clarity over what further concessions the Labour cabinet will make, and what the opposition’s demands are, there is confidence the budget will be passed this Thursday.
Cllr Richard John continued, “We just couldn’t bring ourselves to vote for a budget that we know penalises children and the most vulnerable in our county.
David Davies MP supported the Conservative’s decision, saying: “I think it reasonable for the Conservative Group and all opposition groups on Monmouthshire County Council to vote against Labour’s first budget as on closer examination it’s a budget that penalises the vulnerable, including children, in Monmouthshire.
There will be an opportunity for Labour to make improved amendments before it comes before council again on March 9.”
Leader of Monmouthshire County Councillor, Cllr Mary Anne Brocklesby said: “From the day we took office we have emphasised the need for all councillors to cooperate so we can best serve the people. We made a point of offering an inclusive approach working with colleagues in the independent and the Conservative groups and we continue to work in this way to set a budget.
“For everyone, it was always clear that preparing the most challenging budget for a generation, ensuring that it protected our people, our services and our environment would be huge mountain to climb. We have had no shortage of ideas ourselves and have welcomed some of the other ideas suggested, and, we will work together to see can see how they can be adopted.
“We may not always see eye-to-eye with opposition groups, but our approach has been open, fair and honest. I will always be ready to meet others half way.”
Despite a lack of clarity over what further concessions the Labour cabinet will make, and what the opposition’s demands are, there is confidence the budget will be passed this Thursday, with MCC unwilling to be drawn on its plan should that fail to happen.
A spokesman for the authority said, If the budget is not passed on Thursday we will detail the next steps at this point.”