There were heated and chaotic scenes at Cheshire West and Chester Council’s budget setting meeting last night where a council tax rise was agreed but only after most Tory opposition councillors had walked out.
The controlling Labour group, who voted through a 3.99% council tax increase amounting to around an extra £1 per week, has since claimed the walk-out was staged but this has been staunchly denied.
Deputy Tory group leader Eveleigh Moore-Dutton (Tarporley) had earlier told the Winsford council chamber of her group’s proposal for a lower 2% council tax rise with cash-raising measures such as selling the council HQ bought by the former Conservative administration for ‘at least £20m’.
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At the end of her speech, chairman Bob Rudd (Lab, Garden Quarter) asked her if she was formally moving an amendment to the Labour budget and Cllr Moore-Dutton responded that she was giving ‘notice’ that she intended to move an amendment.
Twenty minutes later Labour councillor Cllr Bob Bisset (St Paul’s) asked for the Labour budget proposal to be put to the meeting at which point the chairman ruled it was too late for the amendment to be formally moved.
A row ensued in which Tory Cllr Gareth Anderson (Ledsham and Manor) alleged various breaches of the constitution but Cllr Rudd, who at one point stood up from his chair and told him to sit down, said he had received legal advice there had been ‘no breach’.
Cllr Anderson admitted: “I’m trying to disrupt your meeting chairman” to which Cllr Rudd responded: “You have clearly succeeded.”
Most Tories then got up and walked out as the vote on the budget was being taken with Cllr Anderson heard saying ‘Not voting’. Independent Martin Barker (Parkgate) said he was abstaining as he would like to have heard the rest of the debate. The setting of the council tax itself, the next item on the agenda, was then approved.
Recriminations soon began on Twitter following the meeting.
Labour Cllr Angie Chidley (Hoole) tweeted: “End of council publicity stunt leaving a bad taste, rehearsed, orchestrated and well choreographed.”
But Cllr Anderson responded: “Nothing rehearsed or choreographed about it. Genuine shock and disgust at the rampant hypocrisy of your group ending debate.”
Lord Mayor of Chester Cllr Hugo Deynem (Tarvin and Kelsall), whose role means he would normally remain politically neutral, tweeted: "Appalling affront on democracy tonight at CWaC Budget meeting, complete disregard to the council as an elected body by chair Cllr Bob Rudd."
The Conservatives claimed to have later uncovered the reason for the ‘chairman’s haste’, alleging a table for more than 20 Labour councillors had been booked at The Shrewsbury Arms near Little Budworth. But Labour says having ‘a chip butty’ at the pub following full council is simply a tradition, adding that many of the CWaC Tory councillors who had earlier walked out were already there when they arrived.
In a statement, Labour, who took control of the council last May with a tiny one seat majority, said it had ‘set a four-year financial plan focused on dealing with the £57 million of cuts handed down by the Conservative Government, while at the same time protecting the borough’s most vulnerable children and adults’.
During the meeting Tory Cllr Moore-Dutton described the 3.99% rise as ‘excessive’.
She told the meeting: “You are going for the highest increase you can get away with and while I can understand why the socialist disciples of Jeremy Corbyn would do this, I have to say increasing tax bills because you can is just the same as cutting the pay of our residents.”
Vanessa Whiting, monitoring officer for CWaC, said today (Friday, February 26): “We can confirm that the decisions taken regarding the budget and council tax at last night’s meeting were taken lawfully and in accordance with the Council Procedure Rules."