Opposition parties target Mayor’s Office and council PR spending in push to amend budget proposals

The voting on how to balance the council’s budget next week looks set to resurface tensions between Mayor Marvin Rees and opposition councillors ahead of May’s referendum on the city’s political system. 

Millions of pounds worth of changes to Bristol City Council’s budget plans have been submitted by opposition councillors ahead of crucial voting next week, from reversing planned funding cuts and reopening public toilets, to raising money from cracking down on illegal parking and cutting spending on the mayor’s office and council PR.  

Mayor Marvin Rees and his Labour administration face a £19m black hole in the council’s finances because of a decade of dwindling funding from central government and the pandemic putting the squeeze on the council’s coffers. Cash saving plans on the table include cutting management jobs at the council, increasing parking fees, selling off council buildings, and increasing council tax and rent for people living in social housing. 

As well as political opposition, other groups in the city have criticised elements of the cuts, including how efficiency savings in adult social care will impact the lives of disabled people and how cuts to museum budgets will “dramatically reduce their ability to function”.

The votes on next year’s budget at Tuesday’s full council meeting are set to be the latest battleground between the Labour mayor and Green, Tory and Lib Dem councillors, who are greater in number since Labour lost its overall control of the council at last year’s local elections.

In three months time, Bristolians will vote on whether they want to scrap the mayoral system brought in just 10 years ago, and switch to a committee system that has existed in the past where power is determined by the political makeup of the council chamber.

Labour and the Greens have been the parties with the joint most councillors, until Labour’s Helen Godwin stepped down, triggering a by-election in Southmead ward, which will take place on 17 February. This means the Greens currently have the most councillors with 24, while Labour has 23 (plus the vote of Marvin Rees), the Tories have 14, the Lib Dems 6, and 2 from the Knowle Community Group, who broke away from the Lib Dems recently.

Councillors will vote on every amendment to the budget individually, and each one will need a majority of votes to be carried. Then the mayor can accept the amendments, resubmit his original (unchanged) proposals, or submit alternative proposals at a future meeting. Labour’s budget plans will need a majority vote, so will require support from other parties, but an amended budget needs two-thirds of councillors to vote in support. 

Because the political control of the council hangs in the balance, it’s likely to be a close-run thing, with a tense and fraught debate. With the mayoral referendum on the horizon in May, it seems inevitable that the tricky task of balancing the council’s budget will resurface tensions about the city’s political system: Does the mayor have too much power? Or are they needed to clear the hurdles of division and political impasse?

The proposed budget has already drawn criticism from the other parties. But here is a round-up of the amendments tabled by and what opposition parties are saying ahead of the crucial vote next week. 

Too many cuts on the table, say the Greens

The Green Party has proposed £6m of changes to the budget because they feel the Labour administration is cutting too much, which will impact key services and vulnerable groups, despite Labour pledging that savings won’t affect frontline services. 

The Greens said their proposed changes would prevent £1m of job cuts and plans to charge disabled residents to install parking bays, as well as reopen public toilets and protect dedicated time for workers to act as trade union reps. They would be paid for out of council reserves, and from the Mayor’s Office and council PR budgets. 

Other proposals include investing in crackdowns on dangerous parking, doubling the budget for school streets schemes, which restrict cars around schools to improve air quality, spending more on upgrading parks and liveable neighbourhoods, expanding residential parking zones where local people want them, and keeping 30 minutes free parking on local high streets to protect small businesses. 

Green group leader Heather Mack said: “Ultimately Bristol’s budget pressures are a result of decisions made by the Conservative government to consistently underfund local services, combined with increased pressure from adult social care. 

“But Bristol’s Labour administration is making decisions which prioritise keeping money in the bank, whilst people are suffering. With many already struggling with a cost-of-living crisis, these cuts to essential services are cruel and unnecessary. In addition, not enough information has been provided about this budget to properly scrutinise it, with information on many of the proposed cuts worryingly vague. 

“Labour did not meaningfully engage with us in creating the council’s budget so despite limited options, Greens have sought to use budget amendments to find clever solutions to protect local services and promote environmental sustainability. I’m proud of our package of amendments which will stop some of the worst cuts and invest in our city’s parks and neighbourhoods. As the largest group, and official opposition on the council, we are keen to work with other parties to agree a budget that is good for everyone in the city.” 

The Tories and Lib Dems also targeting the mayor’s office

The Conservatives joined other opposition parties responding to an ACORN campaign to reopen public toilets. They say they would pay for the move by “cutting spending by the Mayor’s Office and mayoral commissions, corporate communications, and a remnant Brussels Office”. The Tories are also proposing overturning a proposed new charge for disabled parking bays, increasing the library book budget and cutting the cost of bulky waste collection.

While the other opposition parties joined with the mayor lamenting the central government cuts, the Tories saw things differently. Councillor Mark Weston said he wanted to “acknowledge the help given by the government to fully cover the loss of income and incidental costs associated with the pandemic”.

The Conservatives represent many of the outlying wards around Bristol and their biggest spending proposals were directed there. These included upgrading road junctions around the Cribbs housing development and spending £1m to restore the Kings Weston Iron Bridge.

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The Lib Dems have proposed redirecting funding away from a “bloated Mayor’s Office and PR machine” towards “vital services”, funding an additional occupational therapist to speed up the assessment process for disabled people in need of changes to make their homes accessible, and investing more to create more school places for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Other measures included in their amendments were extra cash for play parks, reducing physical barriers in walking and cycling infrastructure and tree planting. 

Andrew Brown, Lib Dem councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park said: “We are concerned that substantial savings are being proposed for which there is much less detail than we would have expected to see. As a result we have doubts about the deliverability of those savings and the concerns about the potential for impact on budgets in future years.

“Whilst we recognise the substantial pressures that council budgets face, both in terms of the availability of funds from central government and of demand for services, we note that the administration has been responsible for the loss of tens of millions ploughed into Bristol Energy,  and cost overruns at the Bristol Beacon.

Criticisms from other groups in the city

The disability rights group Bristol Reclaiming Independent Living (BRIL) say that “the impact of the proposed budget is predominantly targeted at adult social care” and that“such cuts threaten the lives of disabled people”. In all, £11m of the £19m cuts in the budget are focused on the sector and BRIL say that the budget consultation “didn’t include details of the proposed cuts”.

The Friends of Bristol Museums say that a “swingeing” £436,000 cut in the arts budget will lead to a “decimation” of staffing levels. Chair Sue Thurlow said: “The cuts will inevitably reduce the ability of the museums to put on big and successful exhibitions which bring visitors from the local area and beyond, such as the current Grayson Perry’s Art Club and the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year.”

UNISON also criticised the budget, saying that “at a time when cost of living is soaring this budget or the proposed amendments don’t go nearly far enough in protecting workers rights and keeping public services public”. The trade union said proposed cuts to time for organising will mean “managers will discourage trade union engagement so as to save potential costs”.

The GMB union declared victory when a decision on whether to close the South Bristol Rehab Centre was deferred until later in the year. Rowena Hayward, an organiser from the union said: “This is great news for our members, and all of the staff at the centre, who faced being transferred to a different employer, or forced to move their job.”  However, there are several more outsourcing proposals included in the budget – notably at the Concord Lodge assisted living home and within the museums service – which union sources say they will fight.

Councillors will vote on budget amendments at the full council meeting on 14 February.

The Bristol Cable