It should have been a thorough debate about £24million of cuts to public services and jobs in Salford as councillors gathered to discuss what Councillor Hinds described as "the most difficult budget I've ever had to present".
Instead there were accusations of bullying, a Tory in tears, a councillor swearing, jokes being cracked, councillors nodding off to sleep…and a member of the public ludicrously being chucked out for shouting his disgust at them all.
Oh, and the main debating issue of the day – Cuts to youth services? Welfare rights? Day care services for the elderly? No - the price of car parks… Welcome to Salford Clowncil...
This full Council meeting began with Tory leader, Karen Garrido first complaining about the absence of prayers and then about the positioning of the Granada Reports tv cameras which would "only show the back of our heads". This, kind of, set the tone for level of debate…
Next up was Councillor Bill Hinds presenting the £24million of cuts with the most positive spin he could dredge up, listing what the Council had saved from the axe and how he'd kept his pledge to support the vulnerable people in the city. Of course, anyone glancing at the 172 page report accompanying the meeting would have noticed on page 5…
A further reduction of £1.3m in addition to the £1.7m reduction in 2011/12 in respect of our services to the youth in the City which will lead to reduced provision in localities and significant reductions in careers and employment advice to over 6,000 young people at such a difficult time
A reduction of £200k in direct support to the voluntary sector in providing services to tackle family poverty
A reduction of £479k in transport for special needs children
A reduction of £350k in support to welfare rights and debt advice to citizens
Impact upon the local economy through the removal of approximately 360 posts in addition to the 600 posts lost in 2011/12, which will have impacts upon the local economy
A further reduction of £850k in addition to the £1.2m reduction in 2011/12 in the Skills and Work service, which has successfully helped some 2,800 local residents to find and be skilled for work or into jobs in the Salford economy in the past twelve months at such a difficult economic time
A further reduction of £624k in addition to the £2m reduction in 2011/12 in the Supporting People programme which gives support to over 5,500 vulnerable people
A reduction in support to the voluntary sector which may lead to the demise of many organisations providing vital services to residents and will result in loss of service from those which survive.
A few paragraphs later they might also have noted… "2012/13 will see a further reduction of £779,000 with less funding available to housing support services for learning difficulty, mental health, and sheltered accommodation and homeless clients. This will reduce funding for sheltered accommodation by 13%, homelessness accommodation and floating support by 5% and learning difficulties and mental health by almost 5%. These savings will result from changes made to service delivery leading to a reduced number of people supported or a reduction in the level of support provided…"
Hinds went on… "I didn't come into the Council to decimate services which is sometimes what we've had to do…but let's be clear where the blame should lie…it's an ideological move by the Coalition Government…"
Hinds talked about "difficult choices" and then went on to justify the millions of pounds the Council has borrowed to "inject growth into the economy", and to the sound of laughter in the public gallery, listed projects like Media City with the `thousands of jobs' that they bring…Virtually in the next breath he added that unemployment in Salford stands at the highest level since 1996 and that we're looking at a "lost generation" of our young people.
"I'm not proud to present this budget" he concluded "and there's worse to come…"
The fun and games really started when Councillor Andy Cheetham put forward the Tory's alternative budget – which would have cut even more money for a 2% cut in council tax. The proposals included taking three days Christmas leave off council staff, slashing money to the Working Class Movement Library, moving some of the Media City budget to help businesses in other areas of Salford and lots of stuff about making car parks free to help shops.
Labour's Councillor Lancaster responded that "We're seeing people suffer like never before with cuts to the elderly and youth – you can't seriously be talking about car parks?"
He then waffled on about car parks.
The Conservative councillors and the ConDem Government were a soft target all morning for the Labour councillors – which, of course, enabled them to avoid justifying their own "choices" for the axe. Indeed, for the whole length of the meeting no-one actually challenged the cuts that were being proposed.
There was simply no opposition and no debate at all. Where was the voice of those who are at the sharp end of the cuts – the youth, the elderly, the vulnerable? They didn't have one.
The LibDems didn't even propose an alternative budget, while the Independent councillor, Martin O'Neill, supported Labour. The Tories just agreed with most of the cuts and added to them.
Easy targets for Council Leader, John Merry, who spoke of two letters he'd received from overweight Communities and Local Government minister, Eric Pickles… "One was about prayers, which is hardly the most important issue, and when the other letter arrived I thought it might be about giving us more money" he recalled "Instead it was about street parties to celebrate the Queen's Jubilee…
"Now if Mr Pickles restores the cuts I will personally throw a street party" he smirked "...although we might have to make more cuts if we invite Mr Pickles…"
Shortly after the best joke of the day, Conservative Leader, Karen Garrido, was in tears – not about the cuts, of course, but after Councillor Lancaster had made a snide remark, presumably about her husband's past business dealings. Robert Garrido was going on about not borrowing money you can't pay back when Lancaster quipped… "You did…"
Accusations flew between councillors as Lancaster refused to repeat what he'd said and the Mayor struggled to retain order. Those in the public gallery looked on in disbelief and one guy shouted "You're all a disgrace"… He was promptly thrown out.
While Karen Garrido was recovering from her sobs, Labour Councillor Bill Hinds told the Tories to "sod off" as the level of debate reached infantile proportions.
Conservative councillor Lyn Bramer-Kelly was constantly harangued during her speech justifying taking three days Christmas leave off council staff, which led to accusations that Labour councillors were bullying her, and finally Karen Garrido stood up to say… "I'm not here to have my past raked up". She then added some common sense to the proceedings…
"I'm sick to death of hearing rhetoric as if you are the only ones who care" she told Labour councillors "You don't have to do this [budget]…but you've done it…"
John Merry responded… "You've had an opportunity to question this budget but chose not to do so because you wanted to propose a cut to council tax…"
Proceedings then sunk to the previous slanging match that even had the Mayor saying "Please don't revert to childish ways..."
And that was it really, with councillors breaking out their violins to weep how they personally had suffered deprivation… Councillor Iain Lindley had to stack shelves at Marks and Spencer! Councillor Lancaster was once on the dole for a while! And Councillor Balkind came close once to losing his house!
…Indeed, while all around Labours councillors were metaphorically weeping with regret and pointing the finger at the ConDem Government, Balkind actually said "I'm proud of this budget…I'm proud of what we're doing as a council", as he listed the few bits of welfare the council has saved…
The cuts were passed with the usual huge majority. And still there was no voice of proper opposition for those who are going to feel these cuts at the sharp end. That was left to the token trade union protest outside the Civic Centre before the meeting started…
"You get the impression that a number of them [Labour councillors] are sympathetic but they've been sold the narrative that there's no alternative, and I think most people think there is an alternative but aren't being allowed to discuss it" said Mike Hughes who works in Welfare and Debt Advice
"We're having a review on Debt Advice and even though it hasn't concluded they are being asked to vote on the cuts" he added "Instead they are going `We need to cut this and then we'll decide how we are going to do it', which seems to be the wrong way round…"
Lindsay Boothman, also working in Welfare Rights and Debt Advice, was concerned for those affected by Government and Salford Council cuts and the lack of help they will receive as a result of the vote…
"I think it's a bad day for the people of Salford if debt advice gets slashed" she said "You've got welfare reform coming through, cuts to housing benefits, redundancies, people needing advice more than ever. We don't know what is happening and we're worried - and Salford people should be worried."
As councillors went into the meeting they tried to persuade them not to go ahead with the cuts… "One stopped and spoke to us but by and large they've just ignored us, which is to be expected."
A huge contrast to the bleeding hearts littering the floor inside the council chamber…
The most important meeting of Salford Council this year began with farce, and didn't get much above this level for the whole two hours. One member of the public, attending only his second Salford Council meeting ever, summed it all up… "That was pure comedy – I've never seen anything like it…"
…And still no voice for those at the sharp end of what will be £103million of cuts over the next few years.
Car parks, personal tears, jokes, insults, bullying, swearing…Salford Council owes the people of this City a massive apology for this shambles. To any neutral onlooker it was a total disgrace…
For full details of Salford Council cuts see previous Salford Star articles - click here and click here