Lancashire Tory suspended for voting against county's council tax rise

A member of the ruling Conservative group on Lancashire County Council has been suspended from it for voting against his own party’s budget proposals.

Wednesday, 17th February 2021, 6:06 pm
Updated Wednesday, 17th February 2021, 6:11 pm

David Stansfield, who represents the Rossendale West division, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he had been unable to support the 3.99 percent increase in council tax that was agreed during a meeting of the full council last week.

The rise was less than that recommended by County Hall’s finances officers, who had proposed that the authority hiked the rate by the maximum 4.99 percent permitted by the government.

The Tory group proposed a lower increase, which was supported by a majority – but County Cllr Stansfield said that “in all conscience” he would not have been able to vote “even for a penny increase this year”.

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County Cllr David Stansfield has been suspended from the Tory group at County Hall after voting against the budget put forward by the ruling group (left image: Lancashire County Council)

“I believe I would have been putting some of my residents into further hardship because of the way things are at the moment – I have spoken to people who say they just cannot afford it.

“We have got £159m in reserves at the county council and I think some of that should have been used this year to lessen the blow of the council tax, instead of saving the reserves for a rainy day – it’s pouring down with rain now, that day is here.

“I knew if I voted against the group that there would be repercussions – and I accept that, although I don’t agree with it.

“But I’m proud of what I did, because I just stood up for the residents,” said County Cllr Stansfield, who added that he had never before gone against the group in his eight years on the authority.

He has not been suspended from the wider Conservative party and remains a Tory councillor for Helmshore ward on Rossendale Borough Council – but he will sit as an independent member at County Hall and be removed as a Conservative representative on any committees if his suspension is supported by other group members at a meeting next week.

County Hall’s reserves are forecast to be sufficient to cover any budget gaps until 2023/24 – although they will run out by that point if further savings are not found.

The council tax rise will bring in an extra £26m compared to last year and will add £56 to the bill of a Band D property.

Responding to County Cllr Stansfield’s comments, Conservative council leader Geoff Driver re-emphasised what he said during his budget speech – that he had recommended any increase in council tax with “some reluctance”.

He added: “However, I am absolutely convinced that if we are to maintain the county council’s services, particularly adult social care and services for other vulnerable people, we needed to put it up.

“I’m as disappointed as anybody that the government hasn’t yet been able to sort out the adult social care crisis, which is a national issue – but we have to deal with the situation as it is.

“Everybody in Lancashire understands that if you start funding your lifestyle from savings, then you suddenly find yourself having to make some serious reductions in your ongoing expenditure when those savings are gone.

“The county council is no different – it’s just that there are more noughts on the end of the figures.

“Every political party has basic rules in place – we debate issues and then once a decision is made, members are expected to go along with that.

“David decided not to do that and I respect that decision – but the consequences are that you cannot stay a member of the group,” County Cllr Driver added.

It is understood that Tory group members will be recommended to permanently exclude County Cllr Stansfield from their number.

The Conservative budget amendment last week was passed by a 40 to 38 majority.

Three Tory county councillors – Peter Britcliffe (Oswaldtwistle), Jim Marsh (Lostock Hall and Bamber Bridge) and David Smith (Longridge with Bowland) – did not register a vote at the remote meeting. All three have told the LDRS that they had technical difficulties which prevented them from being heard at the time their names were called.

Each of them says that they supported the budget, with Cllr Smith adding that he called officers immediately after the roll call and had his vote formally registered.

County Cllr Stansfield says he is currently considering whether to stand as an independent candidate at May’s county council elections, having previously been deselected by the local Conservative association as the party’s candidate in the Rossendale West division.

“I love doing the job – if they said tomorrow that they were going to stop our allowances, I‘d still do it.

“I think every area needs a voice,” added County Cllr Stansfield.

He was previously expelled from the Conservative party in 2017 following an investigation into benefit claims, which saw him repay £3,000 and be given a £1,000 fine. He was reinstated the following year after local media reported that the party had found that the procedures it followed for his expulsion were “technically deficient”.

SOCIAL CARE CASH

The government told top-tier local authorities with adult social care responsibilities that they could add three percent to council tax rates to fund those services in the coming financial year – or spread it over this year and next if they wished.

By increasing bills by two percent for that purpose from April, Lancashire County Council will be able to add the outstanding one percent in 2022/23 should it choose to do so.

The remaining 1.99 percent of the increase agreed for 2021/22 is the maximum permitted for general revenue-raising, without having to call a local referendum.