Bristol City Council’s annual budget is in limbo after Marvin Rees postponed a decision on whether to accept a raft of changes secured by opposition groups.
A meeting of full council lasting four-and-three-quarter hours on Tuesday (February 15) ended abruptly when the mayor exercised his right to take up to five working days to either incorporate the amendments or reject them.
It is the first time this has happened under the mayoral system in Bristol and means a second meeting of all councillors is now required on March 2.
Five of the nine alternative sets of proposals to the Labour mayor’s budget were voted through – four tabled by the Greens and one by Knowle Community Party, while both the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ plans failed to get a majority in favour.
Two of the successful Green amendments won the support of Labour and signalled potentially embarrassing U-turns by the ruling group, including the prospect of having to reverse the proposal to scrap 30 minutes’ free parking in residents’ parking zones (RPZs), with money instead to come from higher fees after the first half hour.
These also included more traffic-free “school streets” schemes, at least one new RPZ and 18 more traffic wardens.
Other suggestions were voted through by opposition members but did not receive the backing of the Labour group, which lost its overall majority in last May’s local elections, and so might be less likely to be accepted by the mayor, who must make a decision by Tuesday, February 22.
Among these proposals were reopening public toilets – an amendment Mr Rees branded “really disappointing” because it took money away from the mayor’s office and council’s PR budget – as well as £4million of investment in parks and local neighbourhoods and, from Knowle Community Party, a £280,000 borrowing facility for the new community management company of Jubilee Pool.
After the meeting, Mr Rees said: “I have made the decision to bring the budget back to a second meeting, after all amendments put forward at the first budget have been carefully considered.
“This was, first and foremost, a housing budget. It included £1.8billion for council homes, providing funding for 2,000 council homes, £80million to improve energy efficiency, and £12.5million funding for tenants to upgrade their bathrooms.
“We look forward to the second budget meeting, after we’ve had time to consider the measures they put forward.
“I hope councillors acknowledge how important this budget is for Bristol and won’t stand in the way of £3.8billion worth of investment.”
Green group leader Cllr Heather Mack said: “After repeatedly stressing the importance of setting a budget the mayor has now opted to end tonight’s budget meeting before it could vote on and set a budget approved by the majority of councillors, leaving the council waiting, perhaps until next week, to hear whether he will accept some, all or none of the amendments councillors have voted for.
“It’s disappointing that the mayor is even considering ignoring the amendments that have been agreed by the majority of Bristol’s elected councillors – including by those in his own party.
“For Bristol’s democracy to be at the whim of one person in this way is the perfect example of why the mayoral system needs to be replaced by a system that puts the power to set the budget in the hands of councillors alone, and doesn’t allow one person to dictate the outcome.
“I hope the mayor will use this time to take on important amendments that were proposed by the Greens tonight.
“If he does, I expect there will be the numbers in the council chamber to pass a better, fairer budget for Bristol, that allows the council to avoid making some of the worst cuts planned and makes the city safer and more accessible for everyone.”
Conservative group leader Cllr Mark Weston said: “It is sad and disappointing that the suggested alternative savings and spending commitments voted through today have not been accepted by the mayor and that we have reached a stalemate.
“When the mayor had a majority, it was easy for Labour to simply block things they didn’t like. Now, that luxury no longer exists.
“Rather than continuing to accuse others of petty party politicking, I hope the mayor will use the time now available to him positively before holding the reserve meeting.
“He ought to reach out to his political rivals, really strive for consensus and strike some accommodation with them over improving his original budget.
“In the end, it is in all of our interests to ensure that this impasse is resolved.”