Southend Council has three scrutiny committees. These are Economic and Environmental; Community Services and Culture; and Children and Lifelong Learning (C&LL).
Each Executive Councillor (a member of the cabinet) for the relevant portfolio is required to appear before the scrutiny committee to be quizzed on the decisions the Cabinet makes and told hold the Administration to account for what is happening generally (e.g. Schools and Education generally are often discussed at C&LL scrutiny committee). Since May 2012 the Conservative Administration introduced Pre-Cabinet Scrutiny, why we didn’t do it before, I don’t know, but let’s look forward – it allows all members of the council (of whatever political persuasion) to review papers that are going to Cabinet for a decision, before Cabinet reviews them.
In layman’s terms (something which is often a struggle to get in Local Government!) everyone gets their say BEFORE the Administration makes its decisions, which can then be subjected to a limited review afterwards.
Well wasn’t last night a true show of how much the opposition really doesn’t care. The entire proposed budget for Children and Learning was up for discussion. We were honoured by the presence of members of the finance team, the Chief Executive and the Leader of the Council, in addition to the usual senior management team of Children and Learning and yours truly.
How many questions were raised, by the opposition, about the Administration’s proposed plan for £9.1m worth of capital expenditure within the Children and Learning department? None.
How many questions were raised, by the opposition, about the Administration’s proposed £1.8m savings from the Children and Learning department? None.
How many questions were raised, by the opposition, about the Administration’s proposed fees and charges for Children and Learning department? None.
How many questions were raised, by the opposition, about the proposed restructuring of the senior management within the Children and Learning department? None.
Someone had obviously tipped the press off as no-one bothered to attend from any of the local newspapers. It is just a shame the opposition couldn’t be bothered to tell the Leader, Chief Exec and other council officers not to give up their evening for the ‘close’ scrutiny of the Budget that ensued the opening of the meeting for barely 5 minutes.
I spent hours at a time over a number of days with senior council officers in the Children and Learning department (who themselves spent weeks), painstakingly going over the cut backs, redesigns of services etc that we need to offer to save £1.7m from our £36.8m (net) budget. Long gone are the days of “easy” savings, every decision has an impact somewhere that needs to be mitigated, other improvements offered, or sadly accepted. I’d like to think the opposition obviously think the Children & Learning budget is the best that can possibly be offered. I somehow doubt it though.
Still, they can do what they do best, and grandstand at the full council budget setting meeting at the end of February. It is a bit late there thought isn’t it! All we will be told is “I don’t like x, y and z cuts”. Well no, neither do I! It isn’t always easy or popular forming the Administration. There is a reason for that: with forming the Administration comes responsibility – a responsibility to set budgets and deliver on what you say you will do. Something none of the Liberal Democrats, Labour or Independent councillors who were present yesterday seemed to want to do on something as major as the Budget for the next 12 months.
I remember last year the Leader of the Opposition standing up and listing well over a million pounds worth of cuts he didn’t like, and offering no other solutions. I suspect we will have the same again this year. What a sad state of affairs. There should be constructive opposition and criticism of what this Administration does – however much it might pain me or the Leader to go through, it is what the residents of Southend quite rightly demand and sadly do not get.