A “miserable budget” indeed, but better than the alternative

southend civic centre

On Thursday night I’m afraid I bored my soon-to-be wife for most of the night with the Southend Borough Council budget debate (You charmer! -Ed).

I haven’t been exactly silent on it, focusing previously on the problems with the amendments proposed by the Conservative group, and the bizarre behaviour of some of the UKIP group — one choosing to go on holiday rather than attend, and one leaving early and missing the vote.

What I’m going to give here is a brief overview of some of the highlights. The best bits, as it were. And, of course, the bad.

Firstly, Cllr Woodley. The leader of the council is not, I’m afraid to say, an orator. His 55 minute speech clunked a little, and as someone else has suggested, he should probably try to steer clear of words he cannot pronounce, rather than use them repeatedly, i.e. “economical” . His opening speech, though, compared well with John Lamb’s offering.

The Tory group leader struck a tone not unlike a petulant schoolboy, declaring again and again that all of the good parts of the budget were down to the previous Tory administration. Apparently if the voters of Southend hadn’t delivered them such an electoral thumping last May, everything would have been sunshine and roses, paid for with wishes and fairy dust (Or, as they actually proposed, an extra £400k+ of spending reserves -Ed).

UKIP’s (Is he? Who can keep up with this nonsense? -Ed) on James Moyies was in his element. He got to attack everyone, the administration parties and the Tories, whilst still supporting the budget. One point he did say struck me as particularly cogent, in reference to the Tory amendments:

On the whole, the alternative budget put forward by the Conservatives is lazy, that answers long-term challenges with short-term solutions.

He’s not wrong about that.

Of the other speeches, I have to say I was disappointed not to see speeches from any of the other UKIP councillors. And of the Lib Dems only Peter Wexham spoke — meaning not even their leader, a member of the cabinet, spoke.

Blenheim Park’s voice, then, was heard only through Tory Cllr James Courtenay, who to be fair to him gave probably the best speech of the Tory voices. It was entirely predictable, but it was well-delivered in contrast to the likes of Cllrs Lamb and Garston, seemed to have some sort of self-awareness, unlike Cllr Salter’s guided tour of the litter bins of Belfairs. And he didn’t feel the need to deflect with manufactured accusations of homophobia, unlike Cllr Flewitt. To the question of whether it offered anything which added to the debate, the answer is surely no, but it’s another step on James’ road to Tory group leadership, and Blenheim Park ward be damned I suppose.

Of the Independents, we had a full gamut of offerings. Ric Morgan gave a supremely listenable speech, lambasting the Conservatives’ preference for soundbites and sarcastic comments rather than actual debate. Westborough’s Cllr Velmurugan gave an impenetrably two-faced speech, in which he supported both the joint administration and the previous Tory administration, but that’s Dr Vel for you I guess. And Anne Chalk’s contribution gave as little as any of the Conservatives.

For my money, it was the Labour women who won the night, though. Cheryl Nevin, who in Milton ward is one of my own councillors, making her first budget speech gave an impressive defence of the budget and a riposte for the Tories who would seek to shrug off blame for an £11m cut delivered to Southend’s funding. And a little while later the ever-brilliant Anne Jones, who has been the real star of the joint administration, gave the best speech of the night — even including props as she gave a literary-inspired demolition of the Conservatives’ arguments.

It really is worth watching.

In the end, the best summary of the budget comes, I think, from my good friend and Labour councillor for Milton, Julian Ware-Lane. Julian described this as a “miserable” budget, and it is. It is miserable to have to take £11m out of the budget, so that the Tory-led government can spray cash at areas it cares more about. It’s miserable that we aren’t able to do more to improve Southend as a place to live and work in, and to improve the lives of its residents.

But despite that, it is better by far than another Tory budget, which would swing the axe not just mercilessly, but gleefully. Another Tory budget which would see libraries devoid of paid staff. Another Tory budget which would see Priory House closed and its vulnerable residents turfed out. Another Tory budget which would still have hiked council tax by £20 a year, and yet not saved a single service.

Miserable times, but against the backdrop of £11m stolen from the pockets of Southenders by the Tories, let’s see this budget for what it is: a stroke of victory for the town.

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