This month there are two Full Council meetings to update on.
Oddly, they both took place on the same night. Our Group had used its constitutionally enshrined powers to table an Extraordinary Meeting of Council to discuss the following motion on the local plan and seek critical answers for local residents. Rather than schedule this meeting within a week of receiving the requisition as befits an urgent matter, the Mayor chose to delay and hold it on the same night that Council was already meeting to set the annual budget.
Our motion read as follows:
In my proposing speech, I explained exactly why we called this meeting. It was because local people have the right to know what’s happening over the Draft Local Plan, they have a right to answers. I appreciate that it is a complex situation, with highly technical features, but I stressed that we can’t make this a simple, binary, for or against argument.
I posed simple questions;
-Why didn’t they get rid of what residents didn’t like in the local plan after the consultation, wasn’t that the whole point?
-What does it mean to “shelve” a Regulation 18 Draft Local Plan?
-What did a Tory Councillor mean when he indicated the “shelved” draft would be “rehashed” presumably after the 2023 local elections?
-What about the litany of risks this action triggers, they are already set out in the Council’s own Risk Register (Risk SO31) previously approved by Audit Committee, Executive and Full Council?
-How will the Council defend against the speculative planning applications for green belt sites that will inevitably now follow?
The Tories reacted to these crucial questions by heckling, barracking and interrupting.
When Planning Portfolio Holder Cllr Harvey Cohen finally rose to respond to us, he claimed that they were stopping to wait for the Government to make a decision on housing numbers. This, from an administration that previously ridiculed the very idea of adjusting housing numbers just a few months ago. He said that all policies already created will be used in the next local plan – so why not agree them now? Does this mean that any new plan will still be “developer led” at policy level? How does he even know what the public think of those policies when the results of the Regulation 18 consultation have yet to be published?
So no real answers to our questions. In fact, we now have more critical questions that need a response. I hope it won’t take another extraordinary meeting to get them answered?
Cllr Gray used his speech to raise further questions from members of the public. He was spot on when he said that the Tories are protecting ‘small yappy dog’- a play on Boris Johnson’s ill-fated ‘operation save big dog’.
Council Leader Cllr Bright finally got up to speak. Completely missing the point. Instead of using the moment to display some leadership and reassure the public he treated them as ignorant and simplistic. He claimed that it is all just about being “for or against” the Draft Plan. He couldn’t be more wrong. It was about getting answers for local people. It was about trying to ascertain whether or not anything would be salvaged from the £1m+ spend to date. His speech was met with pantomime style appliance from the Tory benches.
Cllr Ozarow then delved further into the appalling waste of public money. Cllr Challice made a particularly impactful intervention – once again seeking clarity on whether the Draft Plan has been scrapped, shelved or shred.
I was then invited by the Mayor to close the debate. I set out the political reality. The Tories are in panic sensing an impending electoral meltdown. This is why they have acted in this shocking, reckless and anti-democratic manner.
Ignoring the ongoing barracking and heckling the Mayor then closed the meeting after the Tories voted against the motion. In my view she should have used the remaining half hour to continue the discussion before Councillors reconvened for the budget meeting later that evening.
Next up was the budgetary meeting of Full Council.
The meeting opened with the Mayor warning all members about conduct. Clearly she had reflected on the appalling heckling and intimidatory behaviour of members of her own Tory Group in the earlier session.
Sadly, we were straight off on the wrong foot. The Tories used a procedural mechanism to effectively remove all questions tabled by opposition Councillors to the bottom of the agenda, ensuring they would not be debated. That prevented opposition members from answering vital questions for local people. They even prevented me as the Opposition Leader from speaking out against this anti-democratic move. The Tories are dodging transparency and accountability – and adding to Hertsmere’s democratic deficit – yet again!
The meeting moved onto questions from members of the public. Hertsmere Labour Chair John Doolan asked a question about the integrity of greenbelt in light of the intention to “shelve” the Draft Local Plan. Cllr Cohen failed to confirm that any site was truly safe. John used his supplementary question to ask the real reason for the scrapping of the plan- clearly due to Tory internal panic ahead of the 2023 local elections…
Renos Georgiou from Potters Bar asked about what Hertsmere was doing to lobby the County Council to save the Potters Bar to Barnet leg of the 84 bus route – a critical link to Barnet Hospital. Somewhat pathetically, Morris Bright was seen to have to whisper the answer to the portfolio holder before they could respond.
Johnathan Shaw from Shenley asked for a full referendum on the future of Ridge Parish Council, something our group wholeheartedly supports as part of the ongoing Review of Local Governance – but sadly not tabled as an option in the consultation paper. Sadly Cllr Bright seemed dismissive of this proposal to move forward in a democratic fashion.
Former experienced Labour Councillor Ann Harrison of Potters Bar asked The Leader whether or not the budgeted increase to the Council Tax hardship support fund would have happened without the successful intervention from the Opposition. Cllr Sachdev appeared to grudgingly credit us for the proposal but went on to say that they would probably have done it any way. I’ll leave you to make up your own minds about that!
Finally, Helen Green of Potters Bar asked a question about ongoing bench replacement in the Parkfield area, to which the portfolio holder Cllr Quilty was completely oblivious.
The agenda then moved forward to the substantive budget debate. Rather than addressing the local agenda, Cllr Sachdev the new Finance Portfolio Holder (who oddly the Tories kept referring to as the Chancellor) opened by praising (the actual Chancellor) Rishi Sunak’s dodgy Klarna-style loan to “help people with energy bills”. Contrast this to Labours plan set out below. He continue to extol the virtue of a balanced budget – seeming to expect some kind of award for delivering a budget that meets this baseline legal requirement. He progressed to talking about making tough decisions – Toryspeak for searing cuts and punishing tax increases. We seem to have a new Portfolio Holder who simply repeats the same old rhetoric that we hear every year…
In my response speech I began by thanking officers for their work on the Budget Reports – in contrast to Cllr Sachdev’s political opening gambit.
Positively, I highlighted that my proposal to increase Ward Initiative Fund scheme funds was accepted and included in the budget. I had asked for it to be doubled and the 50% budgeted increase falls short of that – however, in my views, these funds disbursed by local Councillors in their local wards with the benefit of local knowledge provide considerable benefit on the ground and deliver significant ‘bang for the buck’.
Our budget response wasn’t based on political dogmatism. It was driven by input from local people and interest groups. Our Group spent considerable time consulting residents and local organisations whilst preparing an alternative framework for this budget. We knew that the Tory driven cost of living crisis created a huge imperative for us to develop alternative policies to balance the books – rather than putting the Council’s hands deeper into taxpayers pockets.
I was clear. In Tory Hertsmere you pay more and you get less. I reminded the chamber that back in 2018 Cllr Paul Hodgson Jones claimed, on behalf of the administrations, that Hertsmere would be financially self sufficient by 2020. Instead we have moved in the opposite direction. Predictably he tired to behind COVID – contradicting his Tory colleagues who had previously pointed out that COVID related losses had been largely covered by contingency funds and grants. Council Tax is now at an all time high in Hertsmere. Cuts are at record levels. And no long term sustainable solutions were proposed in this latest Tory budget.
Here is a summary of the alternative framework I set out:
We couldn’t possibly vote for this budget, and attendant Council Tax increases. Together with colleagues we highlighted the travesty of uplifting taxes against the backdrop of the energy price crisis and the huge increase to the cost of basic foods. Cllr Ozarow intervened highlighting Tory financial incompetence at a local level. Cllr Butler highlighted the particular impact of tax rises on working people in the Borough and Cllr Chris Gray set out how the much flaunted staff pay rise was actually a cut in real terms. On this topic I also called for the increase to be geared towards a higher uplift for the lowest pay staff. I also asked for an end to long term reliance on highly paid agency staff which has grown for the fifth year in a row.
I hope our alternative framework showed how a Labour led Council would do things differently. We’d deliver a progressive, sensitive, people powered alternative. Not just more of the same.
Finally, I attacked Tory reluctance to acknowledge the total, aggregate Council Tax increase which actually appears on people’s bills. This combines the Borough Council increase with significant hikes from the Tory Police & Crime Commisioner, the Tory County Council, local Tory Town and Parish Councils and the new Social Care Precept. People will have to pay for this on top of the 1.25% increase in National Insurance payments and the stealth tax on the self-employed – both of these kick in from April at the same time as Council Tax bills arrive through people’s doors. I challenged the Tories to tell people the cost of the total increase. Unsurprisingly the all stuck to the party line not to mention the actual figure.
The Tories patted themselves on the back for the whole debate. But they should be ashamed. We don’t claim that local services can be funded without proportionate and fair Council Tax increases from time to time. But this was a totally disproportionate increase at a totally wrong and insensitive point in time.
I was proud that my group were the only Group in the chamber to vote against these draconian proposals; and the only Group to set out an alternative framework.
We will continue to stand up for local residents. Labour always has, and we always will!
Here’s a link to my full budget speech: https://hertsmere.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/632308/start_time/7422000?force_language_code=en_GB
And here’s a link to the full meeting: https://hertsmere.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/632308