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Conservatives vote for budget by mistake as chaos ensues at Morecambe Town Hall

Councillor Andrew Gardiner, leader of the Conservatives on Lancaster City Council

Chaos ensued at a crunch council meeting as Tory councillors voted in favour of the budget "in error".

The 2023/24 Lancaster City Council budget proposals were agreed unanimously by councillors at a meeting at Morecambe Town Hall on Wednesday night.

They included shutting local Visitor Information Centres in summer 2023 and cutting opening hours of Lancaster museums to save money.

But after the vote, Councillor Andrew Gardiner, Conservative leader, said he couldn't support the budget - only to be informed he'd already voted in favour of it.

Councillor Gardiner later told Beyond Radio that voting in favour of the budget had been an error and blamed the "kamikaze" nature of Lancaster City Council.

Labour councillor Anne Whitehead, a cabinet member, said that budget cuts were necessary to balance the books after "spiralling inflation and years of government under-funding" made worse by the current cost of living crisis and rise in energy prices.

The city council was facing a budget deficit of £2.97m for 2022/23, rising to a predicted £8.41m by 2025/26, and around £580,000 of council reserves have been used to achieve a balanced budget, on top of £2.4m in savings.

The city council's share of Council Tax will rise by 2.99 per cent in 2023/4, leading to a total predicted rise of £87.65 for a Band D property.

The Visitor Information Centres (VICs) cost the council around £250,000 a year to run so they will move towards promoting tourism online, while also talking to other organisations about them running a Visitor Information service in future.

The Platform in Morecambe will remain open until at least April 2024 following a backlash from the public at plans to find an alternative use for the arts and concert venue, which costs the council £150,000 a year to run.

Related Story: INTERVIEWS: Full breakdown of "painful" Lancaster City Council budget plans revealed - Beyond Radio

Councillor Whitehead said setting the 2023/24 budget had been a "painful process".

In a speech following Wednesday's vote, Councillor Gardiner said that "all councils have had these issues for many years".

"You don't run businesses," he told fellow councillors.

"We have to work with private sectors, and look at a way forward to save the Platform, but it also has to be turned around and there will be people out there who want to do that. The VICs as well.

"Salt Ayre has never made a profit. It can't keep losing £300-500,000 a year. We have to talk to the private sector to turn this around.

"Tonight we will not support this budget."

Rival politicians then told him that he and his colleagues had just voted for it.

Councillor Gina Dowding, cabinet member and Green councillor (pictured below), told him: "We really can't take lessons from you and your business acumen when it comes to voting in a meeting."

Earlier in the evening, Councillor Gardiner had asked why the cabinet's budget recommendations weren't being voted on, one at a time.

Councillors were told that the first two recommendations - (1) that the General Fund Revenue Budget of £21.091M for 2023/24 be approved, resulting in a Council Tax Requirement of £10.610M, excluding parish precepts, and a Band D basic City Council tax rate of £249.18; and (2) that the supporting General Fund Revenue Budget proposals be approved; would be voted through together.

Councillor Gardiner said the confusion over the Tory vote had come from having to vote for the two proposals at once.

The Tories were the only group to vote against setting council balances at £5m, Councillor Gardiner saying they would have "gone higher".

Earlier, the Conservative leader protested that his group had not been allowed to put forward their own alternative budget proposals.

"Tonight the Conservative group have been denied to put forward our amendments but the constitution says we can't. Which part of democracy is that?"

Councillor Caroline Jackson, city council leader, said: "We can't change the constitution, because you haven't read it."

Luke Gorst, the council monitoring officer, said: "A fully costed alternative should have been brought tonight and a motion proposed...there is a procedure in place and it's not been followed."

Councillor Gardiner replied: "Rubbish. You didn't tell me that earlier."

Mr Gorst said: "It's not rubbish. You can't make amendments to the budget. You can make objections."

Councillor Gardiner received support from Councillor Erica Lewis, a Labour councillor, who said it was a "sad day for democracy at Lancaster City Council".

The cabinet, which put forward the budget proposals, is made up of Labour, Green, Bay Independent Group and Morecambe Bay Independent councillors.

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