Furious councillors stormed out of a West Berkshire Council meeting after being told there was not enough time for all of them to discuss the budget.

Cllr Lee Dillon, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said it was a “disgrace” and councillors looking to debate the important decision had been “silenced”.

Cllr Carolyne Culver, leader of the Green Party, claimed there were “attempts to shut down democratic debate” and the Conservatives who run the council had “been happy to waste time” earlier in meeting, when the council’s borrowing and investment strategy were discussed.

Cllr Lynne Doherty, leader of the council, condemned the “theatrics” and said the council had to approve the budget before the meeting ended at 10.30pm.

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The Conservative-run council approved a £139 million budget for council services in 2021/22 and a council tax increase of 1.99 per cent, at the four-hour virtual meeting on March 2.

Over half that money (£76.66 million) will be spent on ‘People Directorate’ services, which include adult social care, public health and children and family services.

The council, which is legally required to balance the books each year, says it will have to save £3.7 million in 2021/22 but it will not make cuts that affect front-line services.

The council could have increased council tax by a total of five per cent – but decided it does not need a three per cent increase to pay for adult social care.

That’s because it has finished 2020/21 with £3.4 million to spare, as demand for expensive council-funded social care has dropped significantly due to a high number of Covid-19 care home deaths in West Berkshire.

Before the vote on the budget, Liberal Democrat and Green Party councillors were told the meeting had to end at 10.30pm and there would not be enough time for everyone to speak on the budget and thoroughly debate all the proposed amendments.

That’s because the council’s rule book, known as the constitution, states: “All meetings will conclude by 10.30pm at the latest”.

Cllr Lee Dillon, leader of the Liberal Democrats in West Berkshire

Cllr Lee Dillon, leader of the Liberal Democrats in West Berkshire

Cllr Dillon said: “I am in no way willing to take part further in this meeting and I’m going to leave the chamber. I would like my group to leave with me.

“We haven’t had our voices heard. We are democratically elected representatives of West Berkshire.

“On the biggest council meeting of the night, you have silenced us, so I will silence you and I will leave the meeting.”

Liberal Democrat councillors and Green Party councillors then left the meeting without voting on the budget, which was ultimately approved by the Conservatives, who hold the majority of the seats.

After the meeting, Cllr Doherty said: “Thankfully, their attempt to derail the democratic purpose and leave West Berkshire without a valid budget failed – but it was a close-run thing.

“Even without them in the virtual room, and with shortened presentations, the meeting only just ended in time.

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“The council’s constitution has a cut-off time for meetings of 10.30pm and we just managed to conclude all of the business necessary at 10.28pm.

“Despite the theatrics, we Conservatives have set a budget that is good for the district, and affordable for our residents.”

Before the councillors walked out, the Liberal Democrats had proposed 21 amendments to the budget, which would have resulted in an extra £1.2 million of spending.

They called for several investments, including £150,000 to explore micro hydro schemes that generate renewable energy, another £100,000 of support for libraries and £100,000 to remove the green bin charge for thousands of low-income households.

None of the amendments were accepted, as the ruling Conservatives said they cannot afford another £1.2 million of spending.