Friday, February 24, 2012

"I have a cunning plan"

There are many rewards to being a local councillor, not least (as I am sure most councillors would agree) the feeling of achievement when you've helped someone.  Having a chuckle is not normally a fringe benefit, but it was last night.

Last night was the annual budget debate.  The choreography here is simple: the ruling party lay out their proposed budget, the opposition try and pick holes in it, each defends their position as being in the best interests of the public and the ruling party use their majority to vote the budget through.

Last night in Hart was different.

The opposition came up with a cunning plan.  After years of careful management, Hart has a small surplus.  Once Ken Crookes, the affable and hugely competent Tory Leader of Hart District Council, had presented his budget Stuart Bailey, the ever-courteous and likeable LibDem spokesman for finance stood.  His speech went on for a few minutes but in essence said "Good budget.  Now, since you have a surplus, why not use some of that to eliminate Sunday parking charges and hence give a boost to Fleet business?"

I listened in admiration.  The LibDems had put up this proposal knowing that (a) the Conservative majority would vote down any amendment and (b) voting down this amendment would be tough to explain on the doorsteps when campaigning for the May elections.  It was delightfully clever and - in my view at least - a reasonable proposal.

Now, if the LibDems had proposed a lot of amendments, they could have overreached themselves.  If there's a long debate, the Chairman will call a break and the Tories could have had a huddle.  By having just one amendment, there was no chance for this.

Various speakers rose to have their say with the Tories roughly saying "Not a bad idea, but it needs some thought.  Might there be better ways to spend the money to boost Fleet?  Or should we save it to put our finances on a sounder footing?" and other councillors saying "Jolly good idea: no time like the present.  Let's do it."

Meanwhile, as a Tory councillor, I squirmed in my seat.  I thought it was a good idea on the whole.  In fact, it's a good Tory idea: cut taxes to boost the economy.  The Tory majority on the evening was just 1; a single Tory councillor voting against the grain would be enough for the LibDem amendment to win.  My neighbour, Stephen Gorys, was also inclined to support the motion.

So when it came to the vote, Stephen and I supported the amendment, as did the Tory chairman.  So far the enjoyment had all been on the LibDem side.  However, I am sure they had never anticipated winning the amendment - it was to be a Pyrrhic victory.  Having won, how would they vote on the budget?

Just as it Goes against the Grain for the ruling party to support an opposition amendment to the budget, it is a Fundamental Rule that the opposition vote against the budget.  But if the LibDems voted against the budget, it suddenly struck them that they would be voting against their own amendment, which was now in that Budget.  And since they had proposed just the one amendment, on what basis could they not support the Budget?

The vote was called.  Brian Burchfield, of very nimble mind, asked for a recorded vote where members vote in turn as their names are called.  Suddenly those squirming were on the Libdem benches.  Most abstained, one or two voted against, one or two were savvy enough to vote for the budget.

The result: a good budget for Hart; hopefully (there are negotiations to be held still with Fleet Town Council) some relief for people parking in Fleet; and the most amusing meeting I have attended in almost 10 years as a councillor.

As the Greek said "Be careful what you wish for: your wish may be granted".

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