THERE was no love lost on Valentine’s Day at County Hall, as sweeping budget cuts were approved by West Sussex County Council.
Despite a loud vocal protest from the Don’t Cut Us Out campaign group which halted the meeting today (February 14), the budget went ahead.
Speaking as the meeting broke for lunch, chairman of the group Margaret Guest said it was about ‘making a statement’.
“We knew it would go that way but it’s about continuing to stand up for what is right and to keep on repeating the fact that it’s actually the vulnerable people in the county that suffer each time.
“These are cuts and no matter how they try and cover it up these are cuts. Savings won’t be achieved through efficiencies as they say.
“It’s a complete whitewash. I don’t think that the public of West Sussex will be at all convinced by what they heard today.”
Speaking moments later, leader of the county council Louise Goldsmith said: “In many ways I think if Don’t Cut Us Out had asked to have spoken that would’ve been better. We did facilitate the demonstration and we’re very happy with that.”
From 9.30am, campaigners were outside county hall, before the meeting’s start at 10.30am.
The budget was item nine on the agenda, but as the debate began the public gallery erupted.
Mrs Guest strode to the front of the public gallery and addressed the chamber, despite repeated calls to sit down she refused and launched a verbal tirade against the budget, which would see £14.7m of cuts this year, with around £40m next year.
Describing the cuts as ‘callous’, she was soon joined by others and before long chairman Amanda Jupp adjourned the meeting, with most of the Conservative councillors leaving the chamber, with UKIP, Liberal Democrats and Labour councillors remaining.
After protesters finished their speeches the meeting resumed. Leader Louise Goldsmith introduced the budget, condemning ‘provocative,emotive and frightening language’ used by some groups.
However, this was later contested by other parties, who were incensed that some councillors left during the protest.
Leader of Labour Brenda Smith said: “I was very proud to be elected to the county council five years ago and I’ve been very proud to be a county councillor, but I have to say that today I’m not at all proud.
“I’m very ashamed to be in this chamber and witnessing what’s gone on here today.
“I was really upset that people who have taken the trouble to come here in most appalling weather outside County Hall trying to speak to us as elected members haven’t been listened to.”
She described it as a ‘gross error of judgement’ by the councillors who left.
“Maybe they didn’t follow the procedures that the council has laid out for 125 years but they’re our residents,” she said of the protesters.
Her views were echoed by fellow Labour councillor Chris Oxlade, who said it was ‘horrible’ to see some members leaving.
Liberal Democrats and UKIP also expressed their anger.
Labour councillor Michael Jones described the budget as a ‘Valentine’s Day massacre’.
The cabinet and leader were defended by Conservative councillor David Barling.
“They’ve not enjoyed today,” he told the chamber.
“They have done what they’ve done which none of us sought here, but we have to deal with. We have to do the dirty work.
“It’s easy to be in opposition. It’s easy to knock down the opposition and make cheap remarks and grandstand to the gallery.
“I could do that. It doesn’t work, it’s not real.”
He was joined by his colleague Philip Circus, who launched a stinging critique of UNISON.
“UNISON present themselves as if they’re some sort of philanthropic body, desperately concerned about the welfare of people in the county,” he said.
“They’re a sectional interest looking after the interest of their members. It’s perfectly right that they do that but in all honesty UNISON is no more a philanthropic organisation than the Institute of Bankers.”
Both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats proposed amendments to the budget, but both were voted down and the Conservative budget adopted.
Following a recorded vote, 42 councillors voted for the budget, 15 against and there were 10 abstentions from UKIP.
It will see council tax frozen for a fourth consecutive year and £14.7m of savings.
Speaking in the chamber, cabinet member for finance Michael Brown described the minimum estimated cuts faced by the council in government funding until 2018 of £100m as ‘a pretty formidable challenge’.
However he praised the work of the council, adding West Sussex was ‘‘well on track to becoming a totally self-financed authority’.
For more information keep checking the Chichester Observer website for details on today’s meeting and for updates and extra comments.