At a meeting of North Hertfordshire District Council on Thursday 21st January – the Leader of the Council Martin Stears-Handscomb proposed a recommendation to increase members allowances.
Leader of the Conservative Opposition Cllr. David Levett proposed an amendment to defer the increase for at least a year as it would not be appropriate during the current crisis and public finances should targeted at those most effected by the Pandemic. Cllr. Stears-Handscomb replied that they had considered this but urged all members to support the recommendation to increase allowances and the proposed amendment was not accepted as it was contrary to this.
After a lengthy debate during the administration alliance of Labour and Lib Dem members supported the increase the majority of members present voted against the recommendation.
A further recommendation was then made by Cllr. Stears-Handscomb, seconded by the coalition Lib Dem Deputy Leader Paul Clark to keep allowances at the present level which was agreed by large majority.
Conservative Leader David Levett said, “I was surprised with the somewhat hypocritical stance taken by the Labour/Lib Dem alliance who, when Conservatives were in charge and as reported in the local press, voted against allowance increases for precisely the same reason the Conservative group opposed them this time. I regret the amount of time taken in debate when, if my amendment had been accepted, would have achieved the same result in a few minutes and signalled to the public that the priority for all of us should be directed at fighting this pandemic.”
Later in the evening – during a debate closed to the public – members discussed whether or not to approve a massive increase proposed by the Labour/ Lib Dem administration to subsidising the councils leisure services contractor Stevenage Leisure Limited.
Last September the Council agreed to subsidising SLL to a maximum of £1.8 million against loss of income due to closures due to the pandemic, despite warnings from the Conservative opposition that this would not be enough and was putting the councils future finances at risk.
The concerns raised by the Conservative opposition in September were justified when it later emerged during open debate that SLL was now forecasting that over the next couple of years NHDC would need to subsidise them a minimum of £3.77 million pounds although that could go as high as at least £6.8 million and that they were also dependent on subsidies from other local authorities to whom they provided leisure services.
Cllr. Levett and other members of the Conservative group said that although they fully supported the provision of leisure services in the district there had to be a limit on how much of the taxpayers money could be used to support a contractor and called for a cap to be set for when the level of support should be reviewed, however the recommendation put forward did not set any limit on the amount of public finances.
Following an at times heated debate the decision to agree the unlimited support to the contractor was passed with 23 for, 2 against and 13 abstentions. No
Conservative councillors supported the decision.
Cllr. Levett said, “We fully support the provision of vital leisure services within the district, however this needs to be balanced against where our priorities lie. At the start of the meeting we heard an appeal from the Citizens Advice Bureau to continue or £50K a year that has enabled them to supply vital advice to more people than ever during the pandemic. Earlier in the week at Overview & Scrutiny we heard from Survivors Against Domestic Abuse how vital funding from NHDC and others had enabled them to increase the number of safe havens from 2 to 20 to cope with the massive increase in domestic abuse during the pandemic.
The Labour/Lib Dem coalition is effectively handing a contractor a blank cheque and is a huge gamble and puts the ability to fund such vital services as CAB & SADA at risk– the best and worst case forecast both show that SLL will need £2.45 million subsidy in the 20/21 financial year alone – that’s 20% of the total council tax levied by NHDC. There is no way we can predict if and when the leisure sector will get back to normal and there has to be a balance struck on where we prioritise the limited finances we have.
A Council has a responsibility to protect public finances and that means working within it’s limitations and recognising it’s liabilities to all, which is why our group could not support an unquantified, unpredictable commitment to subsidise a contractor.”