WALTHAM FOREST: Budget approved - but residents denied entry (From East London and West Essex Guardian Series)
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WALTHAM FOREST: Budget approved - but residents denied entry
THE council's budget was approved at a fiery meeting tonight – but there was anger when dozens of residents were refused entry.
The group of protesters were told they could not listen to the debate at Waltham Forest Town Hall due to “fire regulations” - despite the public gallery only being half full.
In unprecedented scenes, the steps to the town hall were also fenced off by barricades and tape, while dozens of council security staff and three van loads of police patrolled the surrounding area.
However, a demonstration before the meeting passed off entirely peacefully. The number of those who attended, an estimated 100 people, was similar to previous anti-cuts protests of the last few months.
Co-ordinator of the Waltham Forest Anti-Cuts Union Nancy Taaffe was one of those not allowed in.
She said: "Some of us managed to get in but then they said no more than 35 people could enter. I think it's disgraceful.
"At times like this the council should be as transparent as possible. It is very undemocratic not to allow people entry like this. Other councils have made provisions like setting up TV screens for their budget meetings, but not here.
"The Labour councillors have barricaded themselves in the town hall and most of them entered through a back door - along with some of their friends who were allowed to sit in the public gallery."
Those in the upper gallery reported there being 13 empty seats, while the lower gallery also had at least eight spare places.
Many of those who did manage to gain entry to the meeting heckled almost every councillor who spoke, much to the visible irritation of members.
In the end, following a heated debate lasting nearly two hours, Labour councillors voted unanimously to pass its leadership's budget, while Conservative and Liberal Democrat members abstained.
A rival alternative budget by the Lib Dems failed to get support, and was mocked by Labour and Tory councillors.
Most of the cuts in the budget, which outlines savings totalling £29.5 million in the 2011/12 financial year and £16.2 million in 2012/13, have already been approved during the various waves of council reorganisations in the last few months.
But it also includes a freeze on council tax, the closure of Waltham Forest Direct shops, a five per cent cut in councillors' allowances and £750,000 worth of unspecified library cuts, which are dependent on the outcome of an internal review.
During the debate, Labour councillors blamed the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition Government for the level of cuts. Tory and Lib Dem councillors blamed the previous Labour Government.
In a passionate speech, council leader Cllr Chris Robbins said Whitehall cuts would have “terrible consequences” for Waltham Forest but said it would be an “act of cowardice” not to try and manage the borough's reduced resources.
He said the council had no choice but to make savings, or it faced the risk of central Government taking complete control of its finances.
He said: “This is a budget which we believe is a responsible budget which recognises the needs of our community.”
Despite continued sniping at rival parties, there was almost a political love-in when Tory opposition leader Cllr Matt Davis praised the Labour leadership, who in turn applauded sections of his own speech.
Cllr Davis said: “I would like to thank Cllr Robbins and pay tribute to him for not playing party politics with the budget.
"Some councils like Haringey have pursued a bleeding stump strategy using cuts to make political points, but I have to give credit to Chris for not having gone down this route.”
But he claimed that many of the savings had been suggested by his own party in previous years and said he could not support the final budget because it was lacking in detail.
The council budget lays out how the authority will spend taxpayers' money over the next financial year. But is also includes cuts of £29.5 million in the 2011/12 financial year and £16.2 million in 2012/13.
However some of the borough's finances will remain unchanged. The budget includes a freeze on council tax and also a freeze on the wages of council staff.
For some there are wage cuts. The chief executive, Martin Esom, will have his £180,000 salary cut by 10 per cent, while councillors will have their allowances reduced by five per cent.
But dozens more will lose their jobs altogether in departments such as children and young people's services. Specialised units such as the road safety and teenage pregnancy teams will also be axed in their current form. However the council says alternative provision will be put in place.
There are also smaller savings. For example, the budget includes a pledge to cut down on the use of council mobile phones such as high-tech blackberries, which, combined with a reduction in colour printing, the authority estimates will save it £150,000.
But there are also tentative proposals, such as a £750,000 reduction in the borough's library budget, cuts to school meals services and changes to the way the council manages allotments. The details of all these proposals have yet to be fully revealed and are under review.
There is also extra spending in some areas, including an additional £500,000 for street cleaning, £500,000 to pay for 16 more police officers and £200,000 towards keeping schools open for youth activities during the summer holidays.
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