Why did Wirral Council councillors vote for a just over 4.5% council tax rise?
It’s been misreported in the press that both Wirral Council and Liverpool City Council agreed a 4.99% council tax rise.
I’ll explain why the reporting on this has been wrong. Although both Wirral Council and Liverpool City Council agreed to increase their share of council tax by the maximum without triggering a referendum, it seems that once again the world has forgotten that there are additional elements added on to the council tax bill for fire and police.
The Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside/Merseyside Police and Crime Panel can’t increase their share of the council tax by more than 1.99% without triggering a referendum.
So the good news is that the council tax rise is (at least for Wirral) actually around 4.5% not 4.99%. However leaving aside this silver lining, both councils decided not to have a referendum.
The Wirral Council meeting (despite the usual passionate speeches) on Monday evening, following a special meeting about car parking charges, started with very large petitions (at least one had around 10,000 signatures) about the car parking issue.
Normally a petition of this size would trigger a mini-debate at Council and a chance for the lead petitioner to speak, but petitions about traffic regulation orders are excluded from this by Wirral Council’s petition scheme.
Cllr Phil Davies (the Labour Leader of Wirral Council) repeated his claims that Wirral Council’s problems are caused by the Tory government who in his view were playing party politics.
In a surprising display of cognitive dissonance Cllr Phil Davies said he was in favour of protecting Wirral’s greenbelt. However (at least from my interpretation of what he said) he’s also in favour of building a fire station and a golf resort on the greenbelt.
Most people would find this policy position somewhat confusing, he claimed that although Wirral decided on planning permission that the Tory government are forcing their hand.
However control of whether fire stations are closed or proposed to be built on the Wirral remains local, with the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority (which out of 18 councillors has 16 Labour councillors).
Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority have a £450,000 underspend (see this report here) which Labour councillors decided to put in a reserve to recruit more firefighters.
It’s also well known that there was plenty of lobbying behind the scenes and meetings between Wirral Council councillors and those involved with the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority. I know this because I’ve seen the paperwork as some politicians can be tracked by their expenses claims.
However, moving swiftly on, Cllr Phil Davies is pleased with the Hive Youth Zone in his ward (coincidentally the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority effectively gave Wirral Council the land at below its commercial valuation of £250,000-£325,000, in fact effectively Wirral Council received the land for just the costs of transferring it to their ownership. I might point out it’s also in Cllr Phil Davies’ ward of Birkenhead and Tranmere.
Of course, I’m not saying that his support for a fire station at Saughall Massie is in anyway connected to this, despite the suggestion made by the former Deputy Chief Executive of Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service (but never agreed to by Wirral Council) that Wirral Council swop the land at Birkenhead for the land they wanted at Greasby (now Saughall Massie).
Moving on, Cllr Phil Davies has found £millions to tackle the issues in the OFSTED inspection. The issue of the apprentice levy also was raised in connection with the Schools Budget.
Cllr Tony Smith (Labour Cabinet Member for Children and Family Services) (who refused to resign following calls from councillors to do so last year after the OFSTED inspection) went into detail about the Schools Budget.
Somewhat missing from his speech (although referred to in the paperwork), is how Wirral Council are left with rising PFI costs, as money for education is diverted to private sector profits and who was the Cabinet Member for Education at the time Wirral Council entered into this contract? Well Cllr Phil Davies of course!
However, Cllr Tony Smith did refer to “huge financial pressures”, even if in Wirral’s case some of these are entirely self-inflicted!
Cllr Jeff Green (Leader of the Conservative Group) spoke to what the Conservatives supported in Labour’s proposed budget and referred to a list of highly paid posts that are detailed in this Wirral Globe article, that the Conservatives wanted to axe.
He disagreed with the way Labour ran Wirral Council in what he perceived to be not in an open and transparent manner. The running theme through his speech was that the Conservatives believed that what Wirral Council spent money on should be lawful (an example given was the Wirral View newspaper which the Conservative councillors have been putting pressure on the Tory government to act over (in fact I’ve reported the DCLG to the regulator ICO as even my FOI request about it is being brushed off) and based on the peoples’ priorities.
Cllr Phil Gilchrist (Liberal Democrat Leader), said that out of a revenue budget of £266 million that councillors were only arguing about £2-3 million.
I’ll point out that this £266 million figure, doesn’t include the £252 million “schools budget” referred to later in Cllr Gilchrist’s speech (which is based on a grant Wirral Council receive directly from the government for education).
Cllr Gilchrist referred to Brexit, social care, agency staff, car parking, the golf resort, issues his colleague Cllr Kelly had raised about the apprenticeship levy (in respect of the Schools Budget), the capital receipt for the disposal of Acre Lane, highways and of course the Williamson Art Gallery in Oxton.
The Mayor then opened the debate to other speakers.
Cllr Paul Stuart (Labour) elected 10 months ago made his maiden speech which said how terrible the Tories and Lib Dems were and how wonderful Labour was.
Cllr Chris Blakeley (Conservative) thanked Cllr Paul Stuart for his speech, but criticised the Labour administration for what he perceived to be a broken promise on Girtrell Court, a new “tax” on people using the parks.
He also stood up for the greenbelt, in respect of a fire station at Saughall Massie and the proposed golf resort.
Cllr Warren Ward (Labour) gave his maiden speech in part on LGBT issues and as a young person he explained how young people on Wirral were suffering due to the economic situation on Wirral. He asked people to put party politics aside as councillors had a responsibility to those they represented.
Ending he said, “ And in conclusion Mr Mayor, I’d like to dedicate my first speech as a councillor in this Chamber to those within the LGBT community. For the past hundred plus years, have fought for equality to allow a gay, 19 year old man like me, to be elected to public office, to be in power and to have a voice. Thank you very much.”
Cllr Gerry Ellis (Conservative) congratulated the previous councillors who had made maiden speeches.
In what was a humourous and entertaining speech, Cllr Gerry Ellis explained (to applause from the public gallery) why he had changed his mind about the Hoylake Golf Resort project.
Ten (although he was reminded by Cllr David Elderton fourteen) years ago he and his councillors were told that “all the costs of it would be borne by the developer because that’s what the developer would do” and described this as “wonderful”.
He said that Wirral Council couldn’t afford a golf resort, that it was not an appropriate place as it was flooded. Cllr Ellis instead suggested using the land for a wetland wildlife reserve.
Referring to (what I presume is the Martin Mere reserve) in Lancashire he said they received 200,000 visitors a year. He said that visitors to the golf resort wouldn’t visit Hoylake, he pointed out that the land earmarked for the golf resort was already flooded which was handy for making it into a wetland.
Cllr Stuart Kelly (Liberal Democrat) spoke about the apprentice levy and how it felt it wasn’t right that schools in his ward were treated differently regarding it.
Cllr Tony Jones (Labour) made his maiden speech which was about how the ruling Labour administration would both defend frontline staff.
Cllr Ian Lewis (Conservative) referred to his fellow Conservative councillors and criticised the Labour administration for finding managing to find money when it suited them, but closing down Lyndale School, Girtrell Court and voting (apart from the Labour Chair) in favour of a fire station at Saughall Massie.
Cllr Adam Sykes (Conservative) urged the administration to regenerate brownfield sites, increase tourism, withdraw their car parking charging proposals, to protect the green belt, rethink their newspaper and look into how much Wirral Council spends on energy.
Cllr John Hale (Conservative) referred to the sorry state of the roads and referred to 22 previous budgets he’d been involved in. He expressed his sympathy to the ruling administration from the hypothetical “Society for the Protection of Party Leaders”.
Addressing Labour’s criticism of the Tories, he wondered how the Conservatives had managed to get 20% ahead in the opinion polls? For reasons that in his view the Conservative budget did greater good for more people, that was why he would be voting for it.
Cllr Pat Cleary (Green) reiterated Cllr Gerry Ellis’ call for protection of the greenbelt in Hoylake, referred to various quotes from others about local government funding but supported “low impact tourism”.
Cllr Janette Williamson (Labour) spoke about fast food and increasing the cost of alcohol. She criticised the government for various policies such as the scrapping of Educational Support Allowance (ESA), the Independent Living Fund, the bedroom tax, the NHS, the police, probation and the prison service.
Cllr Wendy Clements (Conservative) highlighted what effect car parking charges would have on those using council facilities (for example the sports clubs that already pay to use the pitches). She referred to the OFSTED inspection and the issue of child protection.
Cllr Brian Kenny (Labour) referred to a deal with Surrey when they had threatened a council tax referendum and asked where the deal was for Wirral? He criticised the sole Green Party councillor (Cllr Pat Cleary) for not proposing a budget amendment.
Cllr Chris Jones (Labour) stated that most parts of her ward of Seacombe didn’t receive the Wirral Globe or the Wirral News. Responding to criticism over Girtrell Court, she said that the 10 bedroom replacement to the 20 bedroom Girtrell Court wasn’t a breach of the “equal to or better” promise as ten residents had been long-term residents and had been moved elsewhere.
Cllr Adrian Jones (Labour) referred to racism and the way the parties to the right had campaigned (presumably a reference to the Brexit referendum).
He once again referred to earlier in his career working on a blast furnace and what he saw as the decline of industry.
Cllr Treena Johnson (Labour) referred to changes in housing benefit policy and criticised the Conservative government.
Cllr George Davies (Labour) warned that we might be heading for Victorian Britain and pointed out that Labour were not in government nationally. In his view only a Labour government in 2020 would reverse some of what was happening.
Cllr Alan Brighouse (Liberal Democrat) said that “nobody is listening”.
Cllr Lesley Rennie (Conservative) referred to the deficit the last Labour government had left in 2010 and how a departing Labour minister had written that there’s “no money left”.
She referred to what she described as shameful that 1,758 streetlights that had been not working for 6 months or more.
She also criticised poor resurfacing work that had been done and highlighted that she had been told it would take 6 months to fix.
Cllr Rennie referred to Wirral Council’s appearances in Private Eye’s Rotten Borough’s column and how a legal injunction may be needed to stop the Wirral View newspaper.
She was against the car parking charges plans and referred to Labour’s promise to service users on Girtrell Court. She questioned whether it was right at Wirral Council to pay senior managers above the salary of the Prime Minister?
Referring to the fact that there were no scheduled elections this year (*note apart from a byelection of a councillor in Claughton and the Metro Mayor, she refers to elections of a councillor), she felt that Labour had forgotten about the residents of Wirral.
Cllr Ann McLachlan (Labour) critisised the Conservatives and referred to the Conservatives’ opposition to the Wirral View newspaper as engaging in lobbying for publicity and encouraging legal action against Wirral Council.
Cllr McLachlan referred to a review of leisure and cultural services coming to the next Cabinet meeting and the 2020 pledges.
Cllr Phil Gilchrist (Liberal Democrat) referred to Cllr Gerry Ellis’ speech as cheerful and amusing. In his view Wirral View had incomplete distribution, he also referred to car parking charges and how Wirral’s roads were deteriorating.
Cllr Jeff Green (Conservative) referred to many of the speeches by Labour councillors, the car parking charges issue which he referred to as “an utter mistake, a massive mistake” and the newspaper as “silly”.
Finishing the debate, Cllr Phil Davies started off with jokes, attacked the Conservative budget, the need for more houses and said the only reason for a fire station at Saughall Massie was the government slashing the fire authority budget. In his view the Hoylake Golf Resort plans would create jobs and said perhaps it was time for the Conservatives to pick a new leader?
He was proud of the Labour budget.
There was then a series of votes.
Liberal Democrat budget
Vote on council tax levels
The Mayor then accepted an emergency motion on the Vauxhall Motors car plant, which was unanimously agreed.
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