AN APPEAL FOR UNITY in the council chamber ahead of a debate over public consultations on the forthcoming cuts in public services fell on deaf ears during the Full Council meeting on Wednesday.
A paper before Councillors was largely dominated by a list of services that it was proposed might be put to the Moray public for views on cuts to help save the estimated £14million over the next two years.
The Council Leader Stewart Cree opened the debate with an appeal for unity, pointing out that the paper listed only proposals and, ultimately, the task was to convince the public that no decisions had been made or would be made until all views were gathered.
However, the debate very quickly fell into near anarchy, as political divisions took control and resulted in heated exchanges that appeared to dictate the tone of the entire meeting.
None were more troubled by the decisions facing the local authority than Labour councillor Sean Morton, who was involved in several heated exchanges that resulted in his recording his dissent at the entire proceedings.
Councillor Morton tried to move that the local authority should reject the entire idea of even making the cuts, but instead send a strongly worded message to the Scottish Government that Moray was simply not prepared to impose such savage cuts on services and simply refused to do so.
However, Councillor Morton could not find a seconder – although he did manage to extract a promise form the Leader of the Council that he would write to the Scottish Government highlighting the “intolerable” nature of the cuts his and other councils in Scotland were being forced to impose.
In the end the Labour councillor had to accept a formal recording of his dissent against the cuts, with Councillor Morton commenting after the meeting: “I sat and listened to councillors discussing how we could cut the services of the disabled and the elderly and a whole host of much needed services.
“Councillors have sat for four years doing the bidding of the SNP government who are hell bent on slashing services. We simply can’t take any more. I was told that my proposal would be illegal. That tells you everything you need to know about the times we are living in.
“I didn’t want to set an illegal budget. I wanted the Scottish government to change their mind and give us the money we need to run vital public services. Instead of backing me up the SNP sided with Tory Douglas Ross in attacking me and voted to continue the process of making cuts in Moray.
“I’m not going to sit idly by while services we hold dear are threatened. Enough is enough. Moray can’t take any more cuts and the government needs to know that.”
Commenting on Councillor Morton’s outburst, the leader of the SNP Opposition group, Gary Coull, said: “The idea that the Council can just write to Government and refuse to spend within its means is utterly laughable and totally irresponsible.
“I don’t know anyone who thinks that the Council can’t find more savings. Cllr Morton would be better placed taking the Council’s budget situation seriously rather than grandstanding. The fact that he didn’t even get the support of his own Labour Group Leader will tell people just how ridiculous his stunt was.
“Cllr Morton should remember who really holds the purse strings – the Tories at Westminster – the very establishment he campaigned to keep. The SNP will work constructively where we agree but we will not be steamrollered when we have a fundamental disagreement.”
Lolliepop Attendants Denied
Prior to the meeting the local authority released a press statement pointing out that newspaper reports highlighting that they were the first Council in Scotland to propose cutting school crossing attendants was incorrect.
Notably, the statement did not deny that was one of the services possibly being subjected to cuts – it rather concentrated on the fact that other local authorities had already made such cuts, so Moray was not the first.
However, the final outcome of the discussion was that the target list – which including possible ‘savings’ from services such as Libraries, Community Centres, Lolliepop Road Attendants and Public Toilets – was not definitive, and Councillors were invited to add their own subject areas to the list by the end of this week.
For some time there has been growing concern in Moray over the political nature of the Council Chamber and how in-fighting between SNP, Labour, Independent and Tory members was holding back attempts at a unified approach to running Moray.
This was never more demonstrated than in the Council chamber on Wednesday.
Any member of the public who sat through the entire proceedings must have been left wondering if they had been watching leadership in action – or a pantomime.
The real point of the planned public consultation was effectively lost in the barrage of accusation and counter-accusation, lost in the outright hostility aimed at council officials at one moment and each other at the next.
Several tried bravely to stem the flow, to appeal for common sense – but such was the vitriol that at least one senior official complained to the chair that he was being selective in his condemnation of members delivering personal attacks.
Much of the discussion centred around who should be consulted and how, with claims that in general the public were not interested in attending evening meetings when there was better options on television. Hard to disagree – and yet, despite the talk, no firm decisions were taken as claim and counter claim was made.
There was much talk of using Social Media to reach out – can we trust our Councillors, though, to actually understand what that means? Several Councillors from all parties, for example, have used our community news service and social media pages to get their message over (when it suits them) – and we are happy to oblige, after all we have the largest audience by a Moray country mile pouring over the pages of insideMoray each and every day.
And yet, officially, insideMoray does not exist as far as Moray Council is concerned. They constantly dismiss this site as a ‘private blog’. We are never invited to official press briefings and only started receiving press releases when the Council chose to put them online for all to see.
But the underlying thing from Wednesday is this – just how on earth are the people of Moray to take from this meeting that their views will be listened to carefully before decisions are taken, when Councillors and Officials appear incapable of taking the views of each other seriously?