This year the Labour-run Northumberland County Council is increasing Council Tax by 1.99 per cent. (Labour is propped up there by some independent councillors.) Yet the council has still abolished free transport for school pupils aged 16 and over. Those who can afford it will be gettting a worse service as the council is closing Hexham’s attractive bus station. The council is also behind with publishing its local plan – which means delay and uncertainity over where new homes can be built. Yet the council tried to cancel its meetings for this month on the grounds there was “nothing to talk about.” This decision was made without consulting opposition councillors and before the deadline for submitting motions had arrived. Conservative councillors will ensure the meeting takes place and the issue has been raised in Parliament:

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con):

Not only has Labour-run Northumberland county council not frozen its council tax; it has cancelled its monthly full council meetings on the premise of saving money. We know that it is to avoid protest about the teenage transport tax and the lack of a local plan. Does the Secretary of State agree that democracy, debate and scrutiny are key pillars of a council that should not be scrapped?

Mr Pickles:

I think those Labour councillors will find that they can run but cannot hide from the electorate. Part of the process of being a local councillor is being accountable to the electorate. They should just stop hiding and face the facts.

If Labour believe that fewer council meetings are needed, then how about a reduction in councillor allowances? Cllr Grant Davey, the Labour council leader claims each council meeting costs £40,000. Do they serve Krug and caviar? Certainly, £40,000 sounds a staggering sum. But the answer is to see how they can maintain a functioning democracy at reduced expense. In any case, when I put in an FOI request to the council they told me the cost was not £40,000 but the council replied it was £15,000. Even this was mostly notional. For example, there is a figure of “members cost” that is the cost of councillors time’ of £7,162 for 10 hours. But councillors are not paid any less as a result of the meeting being cancelled. Or there is another couple of thousand for the cost of officers attending. Perhaps fewer officers could attend – after all, they can always listen to any bits of it in the tape afterwards if they need to. But, again, their salaries are not cut as a result of the meeting being cancelled, so this is a notional figure. There is £170 for room hire – but the meeting was at county hall. It is rather unlikely they would have taken another booking by cancelling the meeting at the last minute. The claim to be cancelling the meeting on grounds of cost does not sound convincing.