Hepworth Gallery, trade unions and tax: Labour and Conservatives argue over Wakefield Council's Budget

Wakefield councillors have clashed over the ruling Labour group's spending plans for the district over the next year.

Thursday, 27th February 2020, 5:14 pm
Updated Thursday, 27th February 2020, 5:15 pm

The Budget, which was passed at a meeting on Wednesday, is the first for around a decade not to include any cuts to frontline services, but council tax will rise by nearly four per cent.

The authority's leader Denise Jeffery, described her first Budget, which includes more cash to tackle poverty, anti-social behaviour and climate change, as "unashamedly ambitious", "balanced" and "optimistic".

Her deputy attacked "woeful" decision-making by the Conservative government for forcing councils to address nationwide crises, such as social care.

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The Hepworth Gallery has become a bone of political contention in Wakefield.

But opposition councillors, led by the Tories, attacked the plans, saying it prioritised "vanity projects" and took money "out of people's pockets".

They criticised Labour for not pulling the plug on cash for the city's Hepworth Gallery sooner, and for spending money on trade union convenors, who negotiate with employers on behalf of workers.

Speaking in the council chamber on Wednesday, Coun Jeffery, who last week outlined her vision to take the authority in a socialist direction, said: "This is a budget for the future.

"It's our job to fight for all our people wherever possible, and to ensure that those who need the most help receive the most help.

"Unashamedly ambitious, balanced and optimistic": How Coun Jeffery described her first Budget.

"We will strive to treat all local people and everyone we work with with decency, dignity and respect.

"This is a budget that puts our residents at the centre of everything we do.

"We are on their side and we are there for them when they need us."

Describing Conservative proposals to axe funding for trade union convenors, as an "attack on workers' rights", she said: "Convenors have a vital role to play on behalf of our dedicated workforce and we on this side of the chamber believe it's right and proper that we invest in good industrial relations."

Council tax is set to rise in April, partly to fund growing social care bills. Labour said it had "no alternative" but to implement the increase.

But Tory group leader Nadeem Ahmed mocked Coun Jeffery's rhetoric about taking the authority in a new direction, referencing the 11 years she spent as deputy to former leader Peter Box.

He said: "I was interested to hear Coun Jeffery speaking about a new era.

"That's interesting because my understanding was that you were part of the old establishment.

"So were you part of it? Were you responsible for it? Or are you ashamed of it?"

The Tories attacked spending on trade union convenors, but the controlling Labour group said it was investing in good working relations.

He added: "The majority of properties in Wakefield are Band A council tax properties, and they're now having to pay over £1,000 (a year).

"No-one's against trade unions. I'm a member of two trade unions. But I am against excessive pay.

"I know there's some convenors that are paid more than Boris Johnson, and I can give you examples of that.

"Maybe you (Labour) think that's right and you don't disagree with that. I do disagree with that.

"We've said this before so we're not being hypocritical."

Coun Ahmed's deputy Nic Stansby, called for less funding to be given to the Hepworth, which opened in 2011.

The gallery is to become gradually less financially reliant on the council over the coming years, but the Conservative opposition wants that process accelerated and has called for a new indoor market to help the city centre.

Coun Stansby said: "We've been assured many times that the gallery brings visitors to Wakefield, but what use is that when there is nothing for them to spend their money on?

"We're yet to see evidence the Hepworth has improved businesses in the city centre.

"Hopefully the new leader will focus more on regenerating existing facilities and less on vanity projects like the last leader."

But backbench Labour members poured scorn on the Tories' proposals, with Councillor Kevin Swift pointing out that their spending pledges on an indoor market and a swimming pool only extended to a feasibility study, rather than actually building them.

Referencing that some of the Opposition's ideas had been mooted last year, Councillor Martyn Johnson described the shadow budget as "100 per cent recycled rubbish".

Lib Dem councillor Tom Gordon said the Tories had based their policies exclusively on areas they represent, and described their proposals as "almost as dire as the Budget itself".

But he also the ruling party's plans as the work of a "zombie Labour administration".

The council tax increase and everything else in the Budget will be implemented from April 1 this year.

Local Democracy Reporting Service