North Devon Council passes budget after debate over grants
NORTH Devon Council has approved its budget for the coming financial year and resisted a late attempt to modify it by the Conservative Party.
The budget was voted through council last night by 19 votes to eight after a lengthy debate over grant funding of other organisations by the authority.
The budget, which was put together by the Liberal Democrat and Independent Executive, had already passed through the council's Overview and Scrutiny Committee ahead of the full council meeting.
But Wednesday night was the first time Conservative group leader Des Brailey had the chance to challenge it.
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He suggested cutting the grant funding in an amendment which fell by 19 votes to 10.
Mr Brailey proposed cutting grant funding to North Devon+, North Devon Theatres Trust, North Devon Festival, North Devon Biosphere, Exeter and District Railway Working Party and individual councillors' community grants.
Worst hit under his proposal would have been the Theatres Trust, which would have lost £80,000, and North Devon+, which would have lost £65,000.
Those cuts would have left the organisations with £439,000 and £168,000 of grant funding respectively.
Mr Brailey's total savings were £177,000 which he said should be put in reserve for next year, when the grant from central government to North Devon Council is again expected to reduce, as it did this year.
"You haven't taken the difficult decisions," said Mr Brailey.
"North Devon+ have reserves of £414,000. They march on while we have to make hard decisions. We're having redundancies and they're carrying on as though nothing's happened.
"We're supporting 30 per cent of their budget and we need that money in house."
He also said he didn't feel the council could give away £1.2m in grants, or 11 per cent of its budget.
"If this were a household budget we wouldn't give away 11 per cent when we need it for essentials."
He was supported by Mike Harrison, another Tory, who cited the example of Taunton's Brewhouse theatre, which has closed down because of a lack of funding.
"We're not suggesting chucking the theatres," he said. "But we may have to do it in future if we don't do something now.
"You're putting the cart before the horse."
But a defence of the budget was led by member of the executive for economic regeneration Malcolm Prowse, who spoke passionately of the work North Devon+ does.
"What a shame you two didn't come to the North Devon+ conference," he said.
"North Devon+ has run the transform process for us in Ilfracombe, the Exmoor Hill Farmers Project and the FLAG project, which drew down £1m in funding.
"You make it sound like the old marketing bureau.
"You only need to look at the Guardian pull out on North Devon they put together to see what they do.
"The most important thing to this council is economic decline. North Devon and Torridge are at the bottom of tables for employment and wages.
"You should see the work North Devon+ is doing to turn that around."
And executive member for culture Derrick Spear also defended the Theatres, speaking of the importance he believes culture plays in North Devon's communities.
"I have not produced a runaway grant budget by any terms," he said.
"I've gone along with the need not to cut the theatres' subsidy. We want to invest in them so they will become more economically viable.
"Cutting the arts rips the heart out of communities. When you think of infrastructure you think of roads, roads and roads. But it's more than that. It's education and culture too.
"I've always been impressed by the Landmark's ability in one of the most deprived areas of North Devon to get people coming along to perform.
"It's not just for the privileged, you see that in Ilfracombe."
Mr Brailey said he agreed, and wasn't suggesting a complete stop to funding.
"You're trying to save money next year but you'll be in a bad place then," he said. "Do it now.
"I'm not suggesting a stop, just make a cut."
Ahead of the vote on the budget Council leader Brian Greenslade said he had heard some powerful contributions and added he would continue dialogue with central government to try and improve the council's funding.
"For a very small council we are punching above our weight," he said.
"There is a reduction to North Devon+ and the Theatres via the Festival grant.
"But if we suddenly cut off at the knees our funding to the organisations helping us deliver regeneration, where does that leave us?"
The budget also includes a freeze in council tax rates, for a third year running and freezes in most fees and charges, including car parking charges.