'Bung' claims anger Notts Tories as budget worries loom

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption The A453, which links the M1 in Leicestershire and Nottingham, carries about 32,000 vehicles a day

A speech, a slogan even just a single word can shape and sum up a political debate. How about these for starters: "No Taxation without Representation", "Votes for Women" or "Ban the Bomb".

In Nottinghamshire, the word " bung" has suddenly has entered the political lexicon. That's the description the county's opposition Labour leader used to describe the part-funding of a high profile road scheme.

To help pump-prime the local economy, the county council's Conservative leadership contributed £20m towards a government project to improve the A453, the road that links the M1 motorway with the south of Nottingham..

The Highways Agency has already started road building and the first phase of a seven-mile dual carriageway will be open to traffic this time next year.

Bung accusation

But did the political go-ahead involve a hefty financial inducement to government transport ministers, at the cost of county council jobs and services?

That's the accusation made by councillor Alan Rhodes, the Labour leader who hopes to be running Nottinghamshire County Council after May's elections.

Image caption Ms Cutts said Alan Rhodes had behaved "disgracefully"

"It was wrong to give a bung of £20m of public money to the government to make something that is their responsibility anyway," he told me.

"This is happening when front line services are being cut."

Since the Tories took control of Nottinghamshire's County Hall four years ago, £180m has been sliced off budgets with the loss of 2,500 council jobs.

Its Conservative leader Kay Cutts refutes Labour's claims that front line services have been damaged. If anything, she points to extra funding for adult and child care services.

But it's the Labour "bung" accusation that's really caused anger.

According to my dictionary, one definition of a bung is a payment to persuade someone to do something, usually something dishonest.

"I'm surprised and shocked. He's behaved quite disgracefully," said Ms Cutts.

There's absolutely no suggestion from Alan Rhodes of anything illegal. But it's sparked off the first salvo in what could become a bitter election campaign .

"When you are in public life, you really should measure your words more carefully," the Tory leader added.

The work "bung" is more associated with dishonest football transfer deals than road improvements. So has the Labour leader scored something of an own goal?

He added:" Bung? I think it's a word we all understand and that's why I'm using that term."

Labour has high hopes of winning back control of Nottinghamshire.

But whichever party wins the elections, they'll face some harsh realities.

Tucked away in the council's budget report is an example of the tough financial reality facing English local government.

After May's elections, Nottinghamshire's political leadership faces having to find an additional £132m in budget savings. That's on top of savings already planned.

"The challenge will be greater. I don't think that's in any doubt," Paul Simpson, Nottinghamshire's director of finance, told me.

'Squeezing budgets'

So how can it be done?

"We need to be more efficient, more effective and better at procuring services from our suppliers, "he added.

"We must find efficiencies and drive costs out of the business."

One big reason is the rising cost of child care services.

The number of children now in Nottinghamshire's care is 900. That's doubled since the baby Peter child cruelty scandal.

"About £35m extra has gone into our child protection services over the last four to five years," said Anthony May, the council's director of child, families and cultural services.

Much of that extra resource has to come from squeezing existing budgets.

Caring for an ageing population is also a huge rising cost.

The county council spends £500m-a-year on services ranging from schools, transport, libraries and country parks and yet half of that now goes on adult social care.

Extra demands

Nottinghamshire's county population is 785,000. The number of citizens over 65 is 142,000.

One senior council executive put this question to me:

"We are now spending 45% of our total budget on 17% of the population. Is that balance right?" he asked me.

That touches on a looming social policy issue. Another is financial.

How is Nottinghamshire - one of the largest shire county authorities in England - going to fund the extra demands for child and adult care, while wrestling with finding an additional £132m in savings?

Then there's the political question: Are the newly-elected councillors - emboldened by their manifesto promises- really up for the flak that comes with the inevitable tough decisions ahead?

If the rhetoric of this election campaign starts with a bung, the language could get more explosive closer to polling day and in the budget decisions that follow.