The decision was perhaps inevitable but that makes it no less shameful.
On Thursday morning, Shropshire Councillors voted by 43 votes to 23 to keep back more than half a million pounds of government money that was due to town and parish councils around the county.
The votes was on party lines with Labour and the independents voting for a Lib Dem amendment to dip into Shropshire Council’s reserves to ensure that local councils would get the money promised them by central government. All the Conservatives voted against the amendment. In doing so, they supported Shropshire Council retaining money that does not rightfully belong to it.
Last week, I published a letter from local government minister Kris Hopkins urging council leaders to pass the money on. This was raised during the meeting but was ignored by the 43 members that favoured taking money from parish councils.
The two members of the public who asked questions on this topic were treated shamefully.
During public questions, Rosemary Abbiss spoke for the Shropshire Association Local Councils. She asked how Shropshire Council was going to react to the Kris Hopkins letter and how it is planning to work with town and parish councils in the future. Portfolio holder for finance Mike Owen replied:
What I propose to do is to think about the question outside of this gathering and formally write to you in writing my response.
David Cooper from Bridgnorth said there are main ways in which savings could be made. He raised the Kris Hopkins letter. Seeking a “yes or no” response, Mr Cooper asked if Mike Owen was absolutely sure that going against the government’s wishes over the Council Tax Support Grant is the only realistic way this council can balance its books. Mike Owen replied:
It is a very important subject and a lot of consultation has gone on. But like the previous speaker, I think it’s important I take away your comments and observations and formally reply on behalf of myself to you outside this meeting.
These are inappropriate responses. Imagine if David Cameron stood up in Prime Minister’s Questions and told opposition members that he would go away, think and write back on an item relating to the national budget. There would be uproar. People would claim that the prime minister was not up to the job and was denying democratic debate. And of course, in the Shropshire Council case, the decision on parish council funding has been made long before Rosemary Abbiss and David Cooper get their written responses.
This was not the only time the debate was handled shamefully. During the debate on retaining the parish council funds, Mike Owen shouted: “I move that the question be put.” This is a procedural device that called an immediate vote on the Lib Dem amendment. That meant that at least three councillors, including myself, were denied the opportunity to speak before the vote. Neither council leader Keith Barrow nor the Speaker, David Ward wanted the debate to end, but Owen’s motion could not be sidestepped. The vote was held and the amendment calling for the money to be handed to town and parish councils was lost.
This decision is about more than money. And it’s about more than politics. It’s about trust and morality. How can town and parish councils trust Shropshire Council again when it stuffs its own budgets with money due to others? And how can they respect Shropshire Council when it ducks questions and curtails debates?
In the future, town councils like Ludlow will be asked to take on more services and facilities from Shropshire Council. If that is to happen, there must be mutual trust between Shropshire Council and local councils.
That trust was severely damaged today. It was a shameful day for local government.