A WAR of words has broken out in County Hall after a former council leader said members scrutinising budget cuts were at risk of looking like “a few sets of nodding donkeys”.
In a four-page document circulated to councillors and seen by the Leader, ex-Flintshire Council leader Arnold Woolley launched a stinging attack on scrutiny committees, which are tasked with holding Flintshire Council’s financial planners to account.
Cllr Woolley, 74, who led the council between 2008 and 2011 and now sits on the corporate resources overview and scrutiny committee, claimed he has “heard and seen nothing that I would call proper scrutiny of the budget process” or “the predictable or likely effects of agreeing to the figures presented for the coming year’s budget”.
Flintshire Council’s draft budget for 2014-15, which includes £15 million of targeted savings, is set to be ratified on February 18.
Cllr Woolley suggested that anything short of applying a full scrutiny process risked leaving councillors on scrutiny committees looking like “a few sets of nodding donkeys, content to count beans and do no more”.
But the comments lit the blue touchpaper in County Hall, with a host of councillors quick to hit back his suggestions.
Fellow scrutiny committee member Cllr Ian Dunbar said the “nodding donkeys” reference was a more accurate description of the administration Cllr Woolley led up until three years ago.
He said: “That’s how the former group did it, nodding things through.
“This administration has gone through the budget, everyone has asked questions including members for all sides.
“They have been answered truthfully without any dissent from any party.
“Nodding donkeys is a suitable description of Cllr Woolley’s own previous administration.
“Scrutiny work is part of any council, not just Flintshire and he (Cllr Woolley) know what goes in to it.
“There is no nodding donkey attitude.”
Cllr Tim Newhouse, who chairs the corporate resources overview and scrutiny committee, said: “Now is not the time to be trying to grab headlines with donkey soundbites, but instead to be working collaboratively on getting spending under control, as is being done right now.”
As part of the council’s efforts to make savings in the next financial year, it is looking to cut £2 million from its senior management costs. It is understood at least eight of its top 18 posts face the axe.
About 80 further non-senior management council posts will also go to save another £1.5 million from general workforce costs.
Council leader Aaron Shotton has said previously that workforce cuts were part of the council’s efforts to meet the savings targets without slashing public services.
The council will look to meet job reduction targets through voluntary redundancy or early retirement – but have said it will not be a “free for all” for employees to opt out of their authority jobs early.
But Cllr Woolley’s document went on to challenge council bosses to reveal the “structure” they want to follow for the job reductions.
“Whatever the structure is, they need to show it to us, clear, clean and distinct, not just offer vague outlines and cloudbanks of mist that members presently cannot see clearly into, let alone through,” his document added.
The former high ranking police officer concluded his statement by asking if councillors to use the time before March 31, which marks the end of the financial year, to “do a proper scrutiny job” on the proposals and not “roll over, play patsy and just nod the proposals through”.
Flintshire Council chief executive Colin Everett said that Cllr Woolley’s views were “not an accurate or evidenced portrayal of how the council has gone about managing its internal resources and people in recent years”.
But Cllr Nancy Matthews, who is a member of the environment and lifelong learning overview and scrutiny committees, said: “What Arnold is probably referring to is that budget scrutiny meetings were only scheduled for an hour and papers sometimes weren’t available until you attended.
“I think what he is trying to say is that unless councillors take the effort to delve in and ask questions, things do just float through.
“There are a lot of people who do just nod and there are those who put the work in and ask questions.”