A last gasp bid to make Tories on Northamptonshire County Council ditch their £65 million-saving budget by scrapping plans for its £55 million new headquarters instead failed at County Hall today.
After 14 weeks of debates and protests, this afternoon the authority finally approved a 2016/17 budget that will see it axe £24 million from adult social care services, get rid of the Nourish school meals services and shut a care home among a number of unpopular measures.
The moves were approved following a 32 to 18 vote at County Hall, though campaigners had called on Conservative councillors to rebel against the plans.
This morning, leading opposition group Labour proposed an alternative budget which called for the council to mothball the building of Project Angel, the council’s new premises on Angel Street, and halt plans to set up its “Next Generation” council.
On project Angel Councillor Mick Scrimshaw (Lab, Northall), said: “By suspending the project now we will save millions in our revenue budget for the next few years, money that could and should be directed at services.
“We can’t afford it. Now is not the time to engage in this indulgence. We want a decent building for our staff regardless of how many of them there actually are, but we need to put this on hold until the economy picks up, and our own finances improve.”
Labour’s alternative budget proposed borrowing money to invest in services, which it claims would have a longer-term payback.
As a result the party claimed the council could scrap unpopular cuts to bus service subsidies, emergency planning and proposals to get rid of the 24-hour cover for the fire and rescue service’s Technical Rescue Vehicle.
But the alternate budget was turned down after a vote, with Conservative councillors dismissing the high borrowing policy as too risky.
Finance spokesmen from both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP then took to the stand to call for Northamptonshire County Council to be scrapped altogether and three unitary authorities to cover all the services in the county - a move some believe could save the taxpayer £50 million a year.
Councillor Chris Lofts, said: “Let us shut down this council completely and as quickly as possible. Let us set up three Northamptonshire unitaries that have clear responsibilities and maintain local democracy.
“Let’s finish Project Angel and then sell it to the highest bidder. A unitary council structure won’t need it.”
UKIP’s finance spokesman, Councillor Michael Brown, added: “Just getting rid of all those doubled up chief executives would save nearly one million pounds.
“Even if we can’t agree to set up a full unitary authority, there are still savings to be made by working closer with the neighbouring authorities. This year we have seen potential savings by doing this proposed and then withdrawn.”
However Councillor Heather Smith (Con, Oundle), who is set to take over as council leader when Councillor Jim Harker (Con, ISE) steps down in May, did not dismiss the calls outright, saying she would be willing to discuss the possibility of scrapping the current arrangement in Northamptonshire.
She said: “I think in Northamptonshire it’s time we did sit down and talked about a way forward for unitary authorities.
“We would all be disbanded, yes.
“But we have an opportunity now and we will be addressing it.”
But despite the proposed alternatives, an overwhelming Conservative majority in the chamber ensured the 2016/17 budget was ratified easily.
Current council leader Councillor Harker said he was left having to make a £65 million cut because of an expanding population in the county growing by the size of “Geddington” every six weeks.
And he said the council, which will have its government funding cut by nearly £5 million in 2016/17, was a victim of Labour spending under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
He said: “The last 11 years we have had the lowest council tax in the whole of England - the whole of Northamptonshire has benefitted from our low taxing philosophy.
“But the situation we find ourselves in is not a result of us taxing too little, it is because Labour taxed high and then spent too much.”