Thursday, 26 September 2013

Politicians talking to people - how politics ought to be

Conservative group leader Fiona Ferguson might have labelled them 'a massive PR exercise' but I think that the series of public meetings I am holding on the Cornwall Council budget are a fantastic way to understand more about what the people of Cornwall think about how we should approach the financial challenges we face.

And it is something the Conservatives didn't do in their past four years in office.

I believe that this is how politics should be. As councillors, we do not shirk the final decision, but it is surely right that we should be listening to the communities of Cornwall to hear what they think before we cast our votes.

As I have blogged before, Cornwall Council faces additional cuts of £23.9 million next year and as much as £196 million in the four years after that. I simply don't believe that the council can look the same in five years time as it does now faced with such challenges.

We can hope that the cuts won't be as harsh as this - we have to wait until after the 2015 general election to know precisely what we face. We can also hope that Eric Pickles will come to accept the argument being put forward by rural authorities that we do not receive fair levels of funding compared to urban councils despite services costing about the same.

But we have to balance our budgets and prepare for the worst.

Part of what I am doing is asking people what services they want us to preserve above others. I also want to know what they would be prepared to see delivered by others on our behalf and which services they would be prepared to see lost if it means that others can be served. I am also asking how we might increase income or cut costs in a way that does not damage services.

Some of this work is through consultation with our staff, with town and parish councils, with businesses and through online consultation. An extra element - and online budget calculator called YouChoose will launch next week.

I have also sought to meet with each of the political groups in county hall to understand their unique viewpoint. Every group has taken up this opportunity except the Conservatives.

But we are also holding public meetings. We started off with 19 - one in each community network area. The idea of these has proved so popular that we have now added four more, partly at the request of the Non-aligned group and the Labour group. I'm glad to have been able to do so.

As well as the questions posed above, we want to help people understand the challenge we face.

I believe that our meetings have been well received. It is true that we have not had hundreds at each one, but they have been lively conversations and at every one there have been new ideas or new angles that we will take away to consider. But even when the comments are about issues we are considering, it is valuable to hear the strength of feeling and whether attendees think we are on the right track. I cannot promise that every idea will make it into the budget - either for next year or the medium term review which we have also started on. But every one is being considered and all the views expressed will be made available to each councillor before we vote on the budget in late November.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I hope that when we put forward our final budget proposals for the next financial year and our review areas for the medium term, they will see that we have taken account of what they have suggested to us.

The previous administration didn't do anything like this. In one year there was a series of four meetings led by the Independent councillor who chaired the council's finance scrutiny committee. That was useful, but it wasn't in any way to the same extent as this one and certainly wasn't led by the Conservatives or the administration. Indeed, a number of Conservatives have attended the current events and one Conservative councillor has even attended two! Perhaps their group leader does not speak for them.

Since Fiona made her views known, there have been numerous tweets from people who have attended the meetings held so far to say that they thought them useful. If you have yet to attend a meeting the list of the remaining events can be found here. If there is not a convenient meeting for you to come to then you can watch a webcast meeting at 6.30pm on October 10th and submit your comments or questions online.

It's a big programme of meetings, but the costs are tiny - just about £600 to hold all 23 public events.

Of course, it is perfectly within the rights of Fiona and the Conservatives not to take part - although it is disappointing that she does not seem prepared to work with the other groups to put together a budget for the people of Cornwall. No doubt she is waiting to receive her instructions from Conservative Central Office as to what alternative they should put forward.

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