On Monday night, for the first time, I went to observe a meeting of Swindon Borough Council. This was the budget setting full council meeting. Even allowing for the poor reputation of politicians, one might expect that for an important issue like this the debate would be serious and behaviour respectable. Instead, there was a display of infantile posturing and bad temper.
The meeting started with a minute’s silence to mark the death of Ms Fowles, chief executive of the local NHS who died of cancer at the weekend. In tribute, Mr Bluh suggested that councillors should try and have a reasoned debate. It was advice that few — including Mr Bluh and his own cabinet — chose to follow.
During the first item on the agenda — confirmation of the minutes of the last meeting — Mr Perkins delivered the first of many ranting political lectures. Indeed, one of the three consistent features of the evening — the others being the number 21 bus and Mr Bluh’s now infamous smug arrogance — was Mr Perkins’ aggressive contempt for all those he disagreed with.
Next up were questions from the public. In response to one question Mr Young admitted that the £2M benefits to the local economy claimed for the Radio 1 Big Weekend were ‘partly speculative’. In response to another question, Mr Bluh claimed that ‘due process was followed’ when investing almost £½M in Digital City (UK) Ltd. He also said
As far as I am aware there is no Audit Commission investigation.
Awareness may not be one of Mr Bluh’s strong points.
Next were general questions from the councillors, during which Mr Wright got very hot and bothered over the matter of naming streets and announced he was referring the matter to the borough solicitor. The names of streets seemed to worry Mr Wright more than how the council spends our money.
After ¾ hour it was on to the main item for the evening: the council budget. According to Mr Edwards his budget was ‘brilliant’. Naturally, Mr Montaut disagreed and proposed an amended budget, for the same cost but different services. Much knockabout political squabbling then followed, with Mr Perkins and Ms Foley in rather a lot of words accusing the opposition of being stupid and Mr Bluh taking the ‘nice try but should have done better; much better’ approach, and the red nest trying to make up for lack of numbers by shouting all their speeches.
Most bizarre moments of the evening for me were Mr Bawden making a speech opposing a budget needing a higher council tax, even though that wasn’t what the opposition had proposed, and Mr Ali delivering a political speech that made almost no mention of budget plans but wouldn’t have been out of place in a general election hustings for his candidature in Devizes.
However, perhaps the most telling point was when Mr Wright observed that an essential element of civic pride is ensuring that basic things, like keeping the streets clean, are done and done well. To this Mr Bluh responded
The Tabernacle stones and canal are about the bigger picture and Swindon moving forward.
For Mr Bluh running a council during a financial crisis is clearly more about vain legacy projects than serving the basic needs of Swindon.