Havering Council debates Residents’ Association proposal for new budget monitoring process

Council leader Michael White thanked the leader of the opposition Clarence Barrett for stimulating an interesting debate with his motion on budget monitoring.

They were the only kind words that passed between the two sides of the chamber during a lengthy debate around the Residents’ Association’s proposal of a more “robust, transparent and accountable” system for monitoring the council’s financial situation.

The RA proposed a quarterly report detailing the progress of each budget be presented to cabinet – and that any variations against budgetary targets be automatically referred to the relevant scrutiny committees.

In his opening speech, Cllr Barrett (Residents’ Association, Cranham) attempted to reassure colleagues the motion was “not […] about reinventing the wheel” – a statement referring to the fact much of the reports in question was available on the council’s website - but with no requirement that it be scrutinised.

This attempt at deflection was unsuccessful, with Cllr Paul Rochford (Conservative, Emerson Park) telling the Mayor that Cllr Barrett “might not want to reinvent the wheel, but he wants to keep taking off the wheel and looking at it in the middle of the financial motorway”.

Much of the disagreement focused on the role of overview and scrutiny committees, which were set up by the Local Government Act 2000 to be independent of the executive. The Conservative group argued the proposals would compromise the committees’ independence.

“Overview and scrutiny committees should be sitting separate from the cabinet,” said Cllr Michael Armstrong (Conservative, Pettits) - who in his role as cabinet member for transformation is overseeing much of Havering’s �40m programme of savings. “People sitting on them should decide what they feel they want to scrutinise.”

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Defending his position, Cllr Barrett said the council’s �6.7million underspend could incur resentment from the people hit hardest by the cuts if it were not adequately examined and explained.

As if to illustrate the point, Cllr David Durant (Independent Residents’ Group, Rainham and Wennington) said: “[The council] are cutting more than is necessary. They are building up these reserves for the war chest for the next local elections.”

Defending the budget variations, Cllr Roger Evans (Conservative, Elm Park) cited unforeseen additional responsibilities and the need to protect against late grant payments.

With seeming inevitability, the original wording did not make it through the vote – a majority of 26 passed a Conservative amendment that removed the need for any action on the council’s part.

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