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Turbulent meeting ends with approval of Medway's 2015 budget

“Let’s see if I’ve still got a job,” mused one of the Mayor’s staff, flicking through the budget papers in an empty St George’s Centre, half an hour before Medway’s Full Council and the attendant hordes of protesters descended on the building.

“That’s interesting,” he continued, after moving on from job cuts to council fees and charges. “It’s going to cost me more to get buried this year, but the fees for sexual entertainment venues are staying the same.”

It’s just one man’s fleeting take on the budget, but as valid as any which would follow amidst the protracted mudslinging that preceded its approval on Thursday night.

Businesses in Kent can apply for a loan from a £200 million fund set up for the county by HSBC
Businesses in Kent can apply for a loan from a £200 million fund set up for the county by HSBC

Following a £15m cut in government grant funding, Medway Council had been facing a £12m funding deficit, and finance chiefs said there had been some frenetic activity to find savings to bridge the funding gap.

But one man’s “saving” is another man’s “cut”, and opponents say council services will suffer as a result.

Foremost among them is Labour Leader Vince Maple, who used the budget meeting to put forward some alternative proposals - an additional £217,000 to Medway Council employees to fund a living wage; £800,000 to fund a 1% council pay increase; £200,000 to increase apprenticeship incentives for Medway employees; £80,000 to retain EU project staff; £115,000 for the FUSE Festival; £20,000 for a council-run social letting agency; £3,000,000 for pavements and road maintenance; £150,000 for a team of health and lifestyle trainers; £35,000 for the Sunlight Centre service, and £25,000 for a Community Energy Switch Scheme.

Medway Labour group leader Vince Maple
Medway Labour group leader Vince Maple

A rumbustious speech included criticism of Medway Council’s continued pursuit of a £4m Rochester Airport development project -a “vanity project” said Cllr Maple - before he concluded, prophetically: “Even if our amendment is rejected tonight by the administration who is more obsessed with building runway for private flyers, a dynamic bus facility and Japanese gardens on roundabouts, it will ultimately be for the residents to say which vision of Medway they want. I am confident on May 8 we will be changing Medway together.”

The speech was met with cheers from the public gallery - many there in support of the Medway Fuse Festival - but the Labour amendment was rounded on by Conservative opponents for being unrealistic, and predictably rejected in a vote.

Debate returned to the administration’s original budget proposal, but amounted to little more than a political knockabout - Cllr Teresa Murray said the Conservatives were wearing “austerity goggles” through which they saw a “grey and hopeless” world. The cracks in the roads and pavements, she continued, symbolised a council that had “given up.”

Conservative Rochester and Strood candidate Cllr Kelly Tolhurst replied: “I’ve sat here for three years and listened to these budget speeches. Time and time again we hear the opposition talking about how terrible Medway is and the Conservatives can’t do anything right. I find it quite amazing they live here if they feel it’s that awful.”

Cllr Kelly Tolhurst.
Cllr Kelly Tolhurst.

She said the Conservative administration had managed to protect services and invest in infrastructure, adding: “they have proved year after year they can manage the books.”

By this time a delegation of Pakistani officials who had come to view the workings of UK local government, had long since left the meeting.

Cllr Alan Jarrett, deputy leader and portfolio holder for finance, recounted how his wife remarked he didn’t appear to be stressed about the budget this year, to which he had said: “I’m not stressed because I know the opposition will be inept and flaccid.”

The council went to a vote on budget, which was approved.

An alternative view of Thursday’s evening’s debate could be found outside the St George’s Centre, where a small consort of TUSC - The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition - had gathered.

Campaigner Chas Berry, who works as a probation officer, said councils should not use government funding cuts as an excuse.

“They don’t have to be passing these cuts along,” he said. “I bet they moan about how they’re hands are tied but they do have a choice.

“All this stuff about austerity is a myth. There’s more wealth than ever - it’s just the distribution.

“The bonuses in the city are continuing but we’re being asked to pay for the crisis. All the parties are cowards. They don’t want to stand up for ordinary people - TUSC does.”

TUSC election candidate Richard Andrzejak, far right, with supporters outside the St George's Centre in Chatham
TUSC election candidate Richard Andrzejak, far right, with supporters outside the St George's Centre in Chatham

Chatham and Aylesford parliamentary candidate Richard Andrzejak said: “I decided to stand a couple of months ago. We need an alternative. There’s no difference between the three main parties. The Tories want to bring in cuts and Labour want to do it a bit slower. There was no one that spoke for me.

“The main thing now is to raise our profile and show there’s an alternative.”

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