A row between Bedford’s political parties has broken out over a vote on the Conservative mayor’s “ambitious vision”.
The borough council’s ruling party claimed that a Lib Dem amendment has “accidentally” ditched plans for new GP centres and urgent road repairs.
But the opposition parties hit back – calling the claim ‘ridiculous’ and accusing the Conservatives of “pursuing misleading and divisive politics”.
During last week’s Full Council (29 November) the Conservative administration asked members to approve the council’s Capital Programme for the financial years 2023/2024 to 2026/2027 and for future years.
The Lib Dems moved an amendment to the proposals, including the line “delete all and replace”.
The Conservatives have claimed this means “delete the entire capital programme” and request that the cabinet “reconsiders” its capital programme strategy.
Portfolio holder for finance, councillor Graeme Coombes (Wixams and Wilstead), said: “I think that the public would be shocked to know that for some parties, apparently playing political games takes precedence over GP surgeries, much-needed road works and town centre regeneration.
“I’m not sure that Liberal Democrats, proposing at the very last minute that the whole capital programme should be deleted, and Labour councillors being led into agreeing with it, actually realise what they have done.
“Many Labour councillors have previously spoken in favour of the Kempston Hub and cemetery provision for the Muslim community, but they have now voted against them,” he said.
In a statement sent to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the Labour Group said: “The amendments passed at Full Council on Wednesday did not block any of the Capital Programme projects.
“To put this spin on events shows that the new local Conservative administration is following the lead of its discredited and incompetent Tory government in pursuing misleading and divisive politics.
“All councillors should see and have a vote on each business case with details of the project and see a precise and not a generic budget, which is all that has been outlined so far.
“Of course the Labour councillors would want the opportunity to vote in favour of funding for the Muslim Cemetery, Kempston Health hub and the regeneration of the town centres, as they have campaigned for these projects for a long time.
“The decisions on all of these business cases should not be left to the entirely Conservative Executive, for them to present to the electorate in the year of a general election as their gift alone, but should be made by Full Council.”
Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Cllr Henry Vann, said: “This is a ridiculous comment from the Conservatives – they know that this isn’t what happened at the meeting at all.
“Asking the mayor to think again on two items in his proposed Capital Programme is not deleting the whole thing. That’s just desperate over-the-top spin.
“What actually happened was that there was agreement from other parties that the mayor’s reckless spending spree, particularly on his new Leisure Village vanity project, is putting vital services at risk for residents.
“There is £53million extra being borrowed, and every pound borrowed has to be paid back with interest.
“The extra £53m borrowed will cost £5m a year – that is £5m extra cuts to much-needed services for residents.
“We can’t countenance supporting such cuts driven by the mayor’s rash spending plans and we would be allowing the Conservatives to let down Bedford borough residents if we did,” he said.
Councillor Ben Foley (Greyfriars), the Green party Group leader, said: “It is the Conservative Group’s unjustified arrogance that has led to this situation with the council’s Capital Projects programme.
“And it will happen again and again until they learn that in politics it is not enough to pretend you have a majority of votes, you actually need to secure a majority of votes.
“On the particular topics they mention, while their desire to fund new GP centres is understandable, it should be clear that this is an attempt to make up for the deficiencies of the national Conservative government in the way it has been running the NHS.
“It is appalling that local council taxpayers are being asked to pay extra for a service we already pay for through national taxation.
“Promising the earth in a pre-election cycle by borrowing hard from the public purse does not impress Bedford’s Green councillors, and won’t impress the sensible voters of Bedford,” Cllr Foley said.
When asked what “delete all” meant in this amendment, a Bedford Borough Council spokesperson said: “The ‘delete all’ is read as deleting all the recommendations in the relevant reports and replacing it with the new proposed text.”
by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter