Budget-Making in the Dark

David Lee's arguments why local residents don't need to see his council's plans for their services and taxes holds neither intellectual weight nor sympathy.

Local budgets aren’t usually big news events, despite the fact that they are probably at least as immediately relevant to the lives of the ordinary person as their national equivalents. So most of the time when local authorities set their yearly budgets they are only of interest to those already interested in local politics. Julian Ware-Lane, for example, has posted a bit of a blog on Southend Borough Council’s budget.

For those of you worrying that I’m about to launch into a hugely technical dissection of Wokingham’s proposed budget, fear not. I’m not. I won’t. Why? Because the council are refusing to publish it until the point when the law forces them to. I’m not the only person to write about this, but I feel I have to vent my confusion and outrage at this decision.

Let me start by saying that I’m very much in favour of transparency at all levels of government. You won’t find many (if any) politicians disagreeing with this, but often actions tell a different story. Take Mr Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He very vocally espouses transparency in local government. He also advised local councils to refuse FOI requests on spending.

So to Wokingham. Cllr David Lee, the council leader who featured on this blog not that long ago, has refused calls for openness and consultation, on the grounds that it would “just be a PR exercise”. Sorry, what? Surely that depends on how you respond to the consultation? True enough I expect the Wokingham executive to ignore whatever local residents tell them, but actually coming out and saying it is frankly astounding.

He also says that any consultation would be pointless because the budget is already “cut to the bone”. Now, people might disagree with me on this, but when there is less money around it seems even more important that it is well spent and that allocation of funds is fair and responsible. Cllr Lee’s attempt to back up this argument with another claim about Wokingham’s poor funding (a subject that I’ve already addressed) lends it neither intellectual weight or sympathy. Publishing the budget would allow residents to have a look at it, and to feed back into the process.

In Brighton & Hove, the minority Green Party administration has launched rather a novel “open budget” process, where they published it long ago and invited councillors from all parties to participate. I’m not holding it up as a perfect example- and as Cllr Warren Morgan has told me, it’s become something of a political gimmick whereby the Greens can find popular dissatisfaction with particular measures and change them, whilst remaining vague on detail- but it certainly gives more of an impression of caring what residents think.

And honestly, I think I’d rather that than Wokingham’s secretive, high-handed approach.

This approach, where the decisions are taken by an elite group (the executive) and no heed is taken of the majority (the residents), is pretty typical of the one party junta-style approach in Wokingham. The Tories completely dominate the political scene, as they hold such an entrenched majority that they don’t believe they will ever be electorally challenged- so needn’t fear consequences of decisions they take. There’s some truth in that, but the comments on the aforementioned Wokingham Times article show a certain resident concern about what their taxes are to be spent on.

So there you go. I may, eventually, post some analysis of the Wokingham budget for 2012-2013. But since I won’t see the budget until 16th February, a week before it is debated at a full council meeting, it will neither be soon nor thorough. The decision to wait until the last minute stifles debate and analysis, and shows further that Wokingham Conservatives have nothing but contempt for the public they are meant to be representing.