Setting the city budget – an outsider-insider’s view

by Stephen Tall on February 15, 2005

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that insiders very soon forget what it’s like to be an outsider. When this happens they become insider-insiders: timid, parochial and inefficient. Any organisation led by insider-insiders forgets its real purpose. What you want is outsider-insiders. People unafraid to keep asking obvious questions, to continue challenging assumptions, to persist in scrutinising results. Any organisation led by outsider-insiders will thrive.

Local councillors are elected to fulfil the role of outsider-insiders. Our job is to represent the interests of our local residents on the Council, and to keep the unelected council officers honest. The single most important way in which we can achieve this is by setting the Council’s budget – prioritising our policies and showing how we will pay for them. This is what Oxford city councillors last night spent six-and-a-half hours doing. So how did we do?

In a word: rubbish. I have been a city councillor for nigh-on five years now. The five most depressing evenings I have spent during that half-decade have been the budget-setting Council meetings. Why?

The quality of debate

Any outsider who sat through Oxford City Council’s budget debates would question the worth of local democracy. For the rest of the year, councillors from all parties rub along together just fine. Sure, we disagree, and it is right that we should do so: we have different views of the problems that exist, different ways of trying to solve them. But we succeed in arguing courteously and constructively.

Then the budget comes along, and, suddenly, all councillors come out in a rash of partisan spots. I’m not going to single out individual councillors: there are offenders on all sides, and we must share collective culpability. Perhaps the Council coffee is laced with testosterone. It’s the only explanation I can think of for the pathetically puerile parade of brain-numbing, muscle-flexing, ego-boosting willy-waving which masqueraded as serious political discourse on Monday night. (My masculine imagery, incidentally, should not lead anyone to infer only male councillors indulged their love of bravura machismo.) In a sense we were lucky that only a couple of ‘real people’ were there to observe us from the public gallery; and they were veterans whose votes will not have been changed by last night’s proceedings.

So why do we do it? The answer’s obvious: every councillor is hoping to get their name (and, even better, their face) in the Oxford Mail. The more lurid the quote they can provide, the more likely they are to be noticed. It is this destructive symbiosis between politicians and the media, whether local or national, which is strangling intelligent debate, and turning off the public in droves.

Not that the electorate should be exempt from criticism: after all, journalists only report politics in such bitterly personal tones because they know it’s a sure-fire way to sell newspapers. Ask yourself honestly: which of these two headlines are you more likely to read?

  • ‘All politicians are corrupt sex-fiends, says new poll’ or
  • ‘Most politicians do an alright job: could do better (a bit like the rest of us), says new poll’

Then ask yourself honestly: which of these do you think is closest to reality?

The quality of decision-making

But we councillors shouldn’t get off the hook easily. It took 390 minutes for the City Council to agree its budget. What would an outsider-insider think of such a marathon? They would assume, rightly, that insider-insiders are running the asylum. Those of who are responsible for the asylum need to exert a tighter grip.

Do I think the City Council – branded ‘weak’ by the independent Audit Commission – will be transformed as a result of the decisions taken last night? Frankly, no. For far, far too long this flatlining City Council has been caught in the vice-like grip of Labour’s micro-managed, visionless political leadership. Labour prefer to circumnavigate problems (usually through obfuscatory clever-clever tricks) rather than confront them head on. The result is the city tax-payer is short-changed, paying a high price for poor quality services. Oxford is the ninth-highest spending Council out of 238 district councils: do you feel you are getting good value-for-money?

The budget that was voted through last night approved across-the-board cuts in the Council’s business units, which will be expected to meet the full costs of wage and pension increases out of their existing budgets. As a result, those business units where staff costs are a large proportion of their total budget will suffer most – regardless of how well-run they are, or how important the service they provide is. What kind of business would operate in this way? (Well, okay, except the BBC.)

It seems to me the city Labour group are in a state of denial, refusing to accept quite how much needs to change in the way the City Council works if it is to give tax-payers the services they deserve. They are governing as insider-insiders. I am not going to pretend the city Liberal Democrats have all the answers. But I am confident that we know which questions we should be asking. We are willing to behave as outsider-insiders. That is what we can offer the people of Oxford. It’s a good start.