Ex-council leader slams successor over Northumberland budget consultation

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The former leader of Northumberland County Council has slammed his successor over the consultation process for the upcoming budget.

Coun Jeff Reid, who led the Liberal Democrat administration from 2009 to 2013, said current Conservative leader Glen Sanderson had failed to properly consult with opposition members in the lead-up to this year’s budget.

Coun Sanderson leads a minority Tory regime, one short of an overall majority.

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Speaking at Monday’s meeting of the council’s corporate services and economic growth scrutiny committee – the first time members have had the chance to debate the budget in public – Coun Reid called for greater collaboration with members.

Cllr Jeff Reid.Cllr Jeff Reid.
Cllr Jeff Reid.

He was speaking as councillors discussed the findings of the consultation with the public, which yielded just 209 responses.

Coun Reid said: “I just wish you had put as much effort into asking us as you did random members of the public. Why didn’t you ask us these questions?

“We’re in a special position, we represent the people of Northumberland. It is important that the council listen to what the councillors have got to say, not necessarily the public. Why weren’t we asked?

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“Secondly, as 57% of the people who have responded disagreed with everything you’ve asked them, why have you just ignored them? What was the point in asking.”

Surprisingly, Coun Sanderson agreed with Coun Reid and explained his plans for future budget consultations moving forward.

He said: “I think we should extend the consultation to members of all parties and I’m happy to do that, so from this autumn coming there will be a policy conference to look at the budget, where members can say what areas we should be spending more and less on.”

Coun Sanderson also pointed out he and his deputy, Coun Richard Wearmouth, had attended each of the local area committees to take questions on the budget last month.

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Coun Wearmouth added that the three areas deemed most important by the consultees – children’s services, adult services and wellbeing and local services – were all in line to receive significant funding increases from the council via the budget.

But Labour’s Coun Caroline Ball clashed with the deputy leader over his appearance at the Ashington and Blyth Local Area Council last month. Coun Ball had asked Coun Wearmouth whether council tax was set to rise in Northumberland.

She said: “There were a lot of questions but we didn’t get my answers at the LACs. The response to my question was ‘wait and see.'”

Coun Wearmouth argued: “I’m disappointed in that I answered every question I could at the time. The budget changes up until the last moment.

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“If you’re ever in office – and I hope for the people of Northumberland you’re not – you will find that out.”

Coun Wearmouth’s remarks were branded “rude” by Coun Ball’s Labour colleague Mary Murphy, leading to an apology from Coun Wearmouth, before Coun Sanderson called for a “sensible, grown up debate”.

The budget will go to the council’s cabinet on Tuesday before it is debated by full council next week. A majority of the council’s 67 members will be needed to pass the budget.