What happened at a public meeting of Wirral Council’s Policy and Resources Committee to discuss budget cuts proposals for 2022/23?
Before this piece on the special meeting of Wirral Council’s Policy and Resources Committee in the interests of openness and transparency I have three specific interests to declare.
1. During the meeting itself I am mentioned (briefly) by name by Councillor Julie McManus as I emailed her prior to the meeting with a combined series of questions, some of which are merely journalistic inquiries, others as I’m a local resident and she’s my local councillor. At the time of writing and publication I have not received answers to these questions yet from Wirral Council but when (and if) I do so I plan to update this piece with Wirral Council’s responses (although you can watch the video below for what was said by employees and councillors at te meeting).
2. Due to journalistic ethics, as it’s a relevant interest due to the topic of this public meeting and indeed the article below, during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 financial years my business had received two grants from Wirral Council, the first of £3,750 and the second of £1,200 (total £4,950). This is from additional money Wirral Council received (in addition to its agreed annual budget) during those two financial years from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (who in turn received the money (which was additional to their agreed annual budget) from national government). The purpose of the grants were connected to the economic impact on businesses based on the Wirral due to the coronavirus pandemic. Anybody could apply for these grants and be awarded the grants if Wirral Council deemed that their business met the agreed criteria and conditions.
Any direct wholly incurred overheads that directly to do with this blog (for example domain name, SSL certificate and hosting) are (it was a deliberate decision of mine) not currently paid from that grant funding (although such expenses to third parties are eligible to be paid from the grant funding) during this financial year as those costs are paid for through other sources of income. As the grant funding has to be spent within a specified timeframe, pretty much the only thing it can legitimately be spent on is overhead costs paid to third parties (various budget lines of overheads have had increased costs directly connected to the coronavirus pandemic and the measures that had to be put in place). However this blog also benefits indirectly from its proportion of shared third party overheads which are shared among a number of publications. To give two quick examples this would include costs such as bank charges & phone line rental and such third party overheads can and have been part-funded by income from these grants. One of the many conditions of the grant funding (relating to both amounts) is that none of that grant funding can be paid to myself in earnings, Leonora in earnings, nor can either of us directly financially benefit from it.
I will make it clear that receipt of this grant funding in no way influences any editorial coverage of Wirral Council by myself or Leonora. I realise however that this may create a perceived conflict of interest, as well as possible accusations of bias and/or a perceived impact on objectivity. Hence why it is a principle of journalistic ethics to be as transparent here as possible about any such financial links.
3. Although this probably would already be well-known to many people reading this, as council tax is mentioned during the meeting, my wife and Co-Editor Leonora Brace is currently liable to pay council tax at band A to Wirral Council, as the Wirral is the area we both live in. Therefore any increase in council tax from 2022-23 is a financial interest that directly impacts her (and as I’m married to her and living with her it impacts myself too).
By John Brace (Editor)
First publication date: Tuesday 26th September 2021, 9:49 AM (BST).
Please accept YouTube cookies to play this video. By accepting you will be accessing content from YouTube, a service provided by an external third party.
If you accept this notice, your choice will be saved and the page will refresh.
On 25th October 2021, fifteen councillors on Wirral Council’s Policy and Resources Committee met for a public meeting in the Floral Pavilion in New Brighton (as both Wallasey Town Hall and Birkenhead Town Hall are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic). The meeting was a special meeting to discuss one item called the Pre-Budget Setting Report 2022/23 and can be watched above.
By way of background and to aid with understanding, the Policy and Resources Committee each year proposes the budget for next year to be decided at a meeting of Council (usually held annually in the March of each year). Council is the name for a committee of all Wirral Council councillors. There are only 65 councillors at present due to a recent death and the ongoing byelection in Oxton but there are usually 66.
The Policy and Resources Committee comprises of 15 councillors (out of the current 65) and is chaired by Councillor Janette Williamson and vice-chaired by Councillor Yvonne Nolan (who are both Labour councillors). It is made up of councillors from the 5 political groupings on Wirral Council which are in order of size Labour, Conservative, Green, Liberal Democrat & Independent. For clarity the Green and Lib Dem groups are the same size at 5 councillors each.
It has on it (not including deputies) 7 Labour councillors, 5 Conservative councillors, 1 Green councillor, 1 Liberal Democrat councillor and 1 Independent (so no one political grouping on Wirral Council has a majority on it). The Policy and Resources Committee took on the role of proposing an annual budget from the previous Cabinet. This is because the Cabinet was abolished due to a governance change in September 2020 from the previous Leader/Cabinet model to the current Committee system.
As there appeared to be some confusion at the public meeting about the levies part of the budget (which also ties into precepts), I have written in more detail about those two topics below. There are other public bodies (mainly local government ones) independent of Wirral Council (but connected in many ways to it) that annually set a part of the council tax and business rates that Wirral Council collects.
For example Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority annually set a budget for both Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, which includes a large amount raised through council tax and business rates. Wirral Council then collects the council tax and business rates relating to the fire element and passes it to Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority which Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority then uses in turn for itself and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service.
Each year the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside proposes a budget to the Merseyside Police and Crime Panel which includes an amount raised through council tax which is collected by Wirral Council to pay for some of the costs of Merseyside Police and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside. However the running costs of Merseyside Police and Crime Panel are (unless Knowsley Council spends over budget) grant funded to Knowsley Council by national government.
The Liverpool City Region Combined Authority Mayor proposes a budget to the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority that can also include a precept on council tax. However to complicate matters somewhat there is also a levy (see below).
When I was merely a child, back in the mid-1980s Merseyside County Council was abolished by the then Conservative government. Merseyside is the county I live in, whereas Wirral is a borough within that county (the other areas in Merseyside are Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens and Knowsley).
Some public functions are still carried out at a county level with a levy then recharged back to the district councils such as Wirral Council. Wirral Council however (although there may be some minor obscure exceptions) appoints councillors to these public bodies who decide on each public body’s budget. One example would be Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority (MRWA) (also known as Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority).
Another example would be that functions in various specific areas (planning, housing and regeneration, mayoral development areas and transport) are dealt with by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and its executive body Merseytravel. Wirral Council (along with councils for the other regions in Merseyside) appoint councillors to the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. Each year the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority sets a budget for itself and Merseytravel, which includes a contribution (or levy) from the district councils in the area that combined authority covers.
If Wirral Council decided (which for clarity it hasn’t) to opt out of these sorts of arrangements, it would then have to directly itself provide a wide variety of public services that are currently done by other public bodies. To give one example from the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority/Merseytravel budget that would include the maintenance and repair of bus stops on the Wirral (if you see a vandalised bus stop or shelter it’s Merseytravel or the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority that you need to report it to for a request for repair).
Policy and Resources Committee
However back to the Policy and Resources Committee, local government finance is a difficult topic for anyone to understand and it is obvious that there was some confusion at the public meeting last night.
This is partly because (indeed some of the debate was about this) that a lot of the discussions are not being held in public, nor in a transparent way (such as minutes of behind closed doors meetings being published). On paper and in practice elected politicians have the responsibility for both budget and policy (therefore have direct responsibility for these areas to the public), but to be honest there’s no way any human being can truly understand and have oversight of how every pound of public money is raised and spent by Wirral Council without assistance, help and/or a lot of free time. The annual revenue budget for Wirral Council runs to hundreds of millions of pounds each year and it also is the public body that administers the Merseyside Pension Fund which has a pension fund of billions of pounds.
Wirral Council has independent external auditors (Grant Thornton) that Wirral Council appoints (indeed there was a debate when Shaer Halewood (Director of Resources who is the section 151 officer) mentioned them at the meeting in relation to increasing balances to 4%, then 5% of annual revenue expenditure) to try and create a financial “buffer” to help with unforeseen future financial difficulties of Wirral Council. Indeed Wirral Council had to recently seek the agreement of the Her Majesty’s Treasury (which it has) to break the normal financial rules and borrow £millions more (referred to during the meeting as the Capitalisation Directive) which has come with some strings attached.
Consultation was mentioned considerably during the meeting by both Shaer Halewood and Wirral Council’s Monitoring Officer Philip McCourt. However consultation has to be meaningful and then the results of consultation have to be reflected back to decision makers. Consultation can’t just be another tick box exercise along the way of rubber stamping a decision that’s already been made in principle.
Finally, when the pandemic started back in March 2020, Wirral Council employees persuaded councillors to make decisions differently. Instead of councillors making certain decisions, because Wirral Council employees argued that decisions needed to be taken quickly (without going through the rigmarole of the political process such as political oversight, public meetings, consultation, press scrutiny, transparency and the public knowing what was going on), that Wirral Council employees wanted politicians instead to agreed to delegate to them a vast array of the powers of politicians to unelected Wirral Council employees. These powers were then exercised behind closed doors with considerably less transparency. Little detail was published on the decisions that resulted, in some cases a long time after decisions were made. Councillors agreed to this at the time as they believed at the time the pandemic warranted it (especially as at the time they couldn’t hold public meetings in person and didn’t yet have the power to hold public meetings virtually instead). However in many other councils as far as I know, the politicians didn’t go down this route to the extent that Wirral Council did.
My opinion is that at some point Wirral Council councillors (and employees) will eventually realise that you can’t carry on running a Council in “emergency mode” for what is now over a year and a half without it having damaging long term implications in numerous areas (such as the quality of decision-making). There is a general sense among some vocal sections of the public that they have even less influence now over the major political decisions made by Wirral Council over their lives than they used to (for example the vocal grumblings and campaigning over Hoylake Beach) and in order for democracy to actually work at the local level, democratic norms that people used to take for granted have to be restored at some point.
To give one example (although this was decided by national government), reversing the emergency measure of suspending all elections due to the pandemic and holding elections earlier this year (elections which had been postponed for a whole year) is a welcome step in the right direction. Indeed I must admit (perhaps complacency on my part) that as I was born on the Wirral, had voted in UK elections (local, regional, national and European) all my adult life and had seen elections happening on a regular cycle for four decades, it came as somewhat of a shock to the way I’d been brought up last year (2020) to be told that because of the pandemic the decision (for now) would be taken out of my hands and I’d have to wait a further year to vote. It’s all part of growing up I suppose and getting used to coping with change.
On that very point of elections, at the time of publication (26th October 2021) it is the nomination period in the election of a councillor to Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council for Oxton. Details of how to obtain copies of nomination papers are in the Notice of Election published on Wirral Council’s website. Nomination papers have to be completed and returned in person no later than 4pm on Friday 29th October 2021 on a working day to the Electoral Services Office at Wirral Tennis Centre, Valley Road, Bidston CH41 7EJ.
However, back to the Policy and Resources Committee meeting. At the moment the amount the amount in core funding that Wirral Council will receive from national government is an unknown quantity. Each year the national government announces a provisional settlement in December (which for the 2022-23 budget will be December 2021) followed by the final settlement in February (which for the 2022-23 budget will be February 2022).
Until those figures are published and known, the 2022-23 budget is based on a lot of assumptions and guesswork with a range of different financial scenarios.
There are what I will refer to as proposed cuts (although the language used by Wirral Council (which reminds me a little of Orwell’s Newspeak) is “budget proposals”) can be found on page 30 of the report. If those cuts are implemented it would impact how a wide range of public services that Wirral Council currently provides are provided and “workforce remodelling” as a specific line. This means the potential for people to lose their job or have to change their job (which the public sector unions will no doubt express an opinion on at some stage when the relevant sections of the workforce are consulted).
As this piece is now over 2,000 words, I will leave it there, but I wrote this as I feel the public on the Wirral have a right to be informed what’s going on, in as measured a way as I can do so considering the short length of the meeting, the interests declared at the start as well as the complexity of the issue and the fact that this is only a 2,000 words (which barely scratches the surface).
If you click on any of the buttons below, you’ll be doing me a favour by sharing this article with other people.