A passionate debate took place at last night’s meeting of Sutton’s Full Council as the Liberal Democrat finance boss commended his budget to councillors for the financial year 2009/10, with an above average council tax increase of 2.9%.

I’ve included a few highlights below. Bizarrely, the points were met with speeches on John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Boris Johnson, the state of the railways in 1919 and the benefit of exercise for over-50s. Far be it for me to say that the LibDem administration are losing their way, but I suspect the 180,000 Sutton residents who rarely set foot in the Civic Offices have more pressing matters when looking at how their representatives are doing with their cash.

Opposition Finance spokesman, Councillor Tim Crowley, who spearheaded the Conservatives’ attack, levelled the charges that Sutton’s LibDem town hall leadership is: –

  1. Failing to make life easier for residents in a time of financial hardship with a council tax freeze – fully costed and easily achievable.
  2. Ignoring an overwhelming response from the Conservatives’ alternative budget consultation (1200+ responses) which shows that 93% of residents believe council tax should be frozen (http://www.freezethetax.org.uk/)
  3. Perilously pressing ahead with the controversial £8million pet project, the ‘Sutton Life Centre’ – an unaffordable and high-risk project, in a dire financial time.
  4. Betraying all the residents of the Borough who voted for the LibDems because of the Council leadership’s slavish pursuit of Labour Government targets, ahead of the needs and at the expense of local residents. In short: vote LibDem, get Labour.
  5. Ideologically incapable of lowering the tax burden on Sutton’s residents because local LibDems define themselves through the high expenditure of public money.
  6. Pleading poverty when, behind the spin, the LibDem Council is hoarding nearly £12million of taxpayers’ cash in a ‘war chest’ to fund controversial pet projects.
  7. Controversially raiding the schools budgets by £1.3million and ‘siphoning’ £3.6million from adult social services into these pet projects – when this money should be ring-fenced for the services that they were intended for.
  8. Irresponsibly taking money away from maintenance budgets for the upkeep of council-owned properties to the tune of £2million.

Councillor Tim Crowley commented on the budget by saying: –

“Last night the LibDems voted to inflict yet another above average council tax hike on residents. But the difference this year is that we’re in the worst recession in many years. The Lib Dems’ answer is to press ahead with the controversial £8million Sutton Life Centre without asking residents, by raiding other budgets to build it, and without knowing how they’ll afford to keep it open. In this budget, all roads lead to the Life Centre

“We issued a compassionate plea to the LibDem leadership to help residents by freezing the tax. Regardless of their spin, this was entirely achievable through large windfalls received by this Council.”

Councillor Paul Scully, Leader of the Conservative Opposition, added: –

“Sutton’s LibDem Council has lived up to its reputation for an epic refusal to listen to local taxpayers, by failing to freeze the tax burden when most needed.

“They seem totally incapable of reducing their burden on local peoples’ pockets and frighteningly quick to throw money at controversial pet projects. This is made worse as we face a deepening recession. Now is the time for the LibDem Council to employ thrift, not to be a spendthrift.”

– Speech Summary –

Councillor Tim Crowley made the following points in his speech: –

On addressing the concerns of the recession and its impact on Sutton:
“As an outer London Borough many of our residents commute to London and have jobs in either the financial industry, or are employed in support services to that sector. These people’s futures are under an ever darkening cloud.”

On criticising the Lib Dem Council’s ‘get out clause’ of a poor settlement from Government:
“Every time Councillor Drage stands up and discusses all local matters financial he refers to the fact that we are a floor authority with one of the lowest grant settlements in London.

“This is Councillor Drage’s “get-out clause” for anything that this administration says it can not do. But let’s remember that the 3 year grant settlement secured last year was actually higher than the council was expecting.”

On Lib Dem finance boss Councillor Drage’s magic act:
“Like David Copperfield – famous for making large objects like tanks and the Statue of Liberty disappear – Councillor Drage is performing the equally impressive feat of making a mountain of taxpayers’ money vanish into thin air.”

On freezing the council tax via windfalls from a VAT refund and the Freedom Pass:
“Let’s look at the other areas where you have had money in that you weren’t expecting – The 2 windfalls as laid out in the tabled report: –
· £1.3 million from a VAT refund going back to 1975 and
· £1 million from a refund from the Freedom Pass, London’s concessionary fare scheme.
“This equates to £2.3 million which would have enabled you to freeze the council tax without affecting overall long term budgets. This is money which the taxpayers have paid out once, why should they not get it back?

“This LibDem Council has had a stroke of good luck with the millions it has received via windfalls, it should now pass this good luck on to taxpayers who are currently suffering bad luck in this recession.”

On Sutton Council’s £5.5million frozen investment in Heritable Bank, subsidiary of Landsbanki:
“Then we have the big one…the £1.5million that is having to be set aside to cover potential losses arising from the freezing of £5.5million of assets that are frozen in an Icelandic bank account.

“We have had a debate and an inquiry about how and why this took place. But the fact remains it did take place and it has happened on your watch with a possible large cost to the Sutton taxpayer.”

On the LibDems’ betrayal of residents by “slavish” relationship with the Labour Government:
“The final major issue that lies at the heart of the LibDem approach to public finance, and this budget, is your relationship with central government and your slavish pursuit of central government targets, ahead of the needs and at the expense of local residents and taxpayers.

“When a council is elected then the least that the voters expect is that you will, as an administration, fight for their needs, ahead of the Mandarins of Whitehall. It really is vote LibDem, get Labour.”