Mike Fisher, the leader of the Conservative group that tries to run Croydon Council, tonight raised the white flag at the Town Hall when – at the latest possible moment on a Friday evening just before half-term week – he had the Ministry of Truth sneak out the announcement that he plans to increase Council Tax this year by 1.85 per cent.
The proposed increase – which will cost residents in a typical Band D household an extra £21 per year – shows that even for axeman Fisher, so wedded to reducing council services, after three years of ruthless and destructive cuts to spending on the borough’s activities, there is nothing left to cut.
This latest broken promise from the 2010 local election manifesto had been the holy of holies for the Tories, so to abandon it now, within 18 months of the next local elections, is the frankest admission yet that even Fisher, Tim Pollard, Dudley Mead and their tired team of senior councillors do not think they can retain control of Croydon in 2014.
And it is an admission by Croydon Tories of the failure of the centrally imposed, zero-increase Council Tax policy from Conservative party grandee Eric Pickles, the local government minister.
Croydon is not the first Conservative-run council to crack under the pressure from Whitehall – the Local Government Chronicle reckons 33 other Tory-run councils in England have succumbed to increases this year.
But given that Pickles went against his party’s apparent liking for “localism” and instead introduced a 2 per cent increase limit as a deliberate ruse to create political capital should “recalcitrant” Labour councils increase their Council Tax, when Conservative-run councils do so, it leaves Big Eric with little scope for boasting of financial rectitude. Only 23 Labour councils have announced increases; Labour Lambeth has frozen its council tax for the five-year period 2009-2014; neighbouring Sutton, under LibDem control, is not increasing Council Tax in 2013.
So it’s probably fair to say that any chance of a gong in the 2014 Birthday Honours for Fisher is now long gone.
By pitching its Council Tax increase at less than 2 per cent, Croydon avoids being compelled to stage a local referendum on the subject – something which would cost the borough an estimated £200,000 to do the local democracy equivalent of asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.
The 1.85 per cent increase should – if Croydon’s poor collection rate could ever be improved; £42 million uncollected at the last count – raise an additional £2.71 million per year. Or barely twice what it is paying to furnish and decorate the £140 million new Council HQ building.
It will be the first Council Tax increase in this borough since the 1.07 per cent rise in 2010, also imposed by the Conservative council. By making the 2013 increase, Croydon will miss out on a 1 per cent government funding incentive to freeze the tax.
The final figures will be decided at a council budget meeting on Tuesday week, and will depend on the amount demanded by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, at a City Hall meeting 24 hours earlier, on February 25. BoJo wants to cut his share of the boroughs’ Council Tax, but Labour, LibDem and Green London Assembly Members want it left unchanged to avoid further cuts to the Metropolitan Police and London Fire Brigade.
Croydon’s Ministry of Truth had, by 10pm on Friday night, failed to post any details of the Council Tax hike, nor any explanation from Fisher for the U-turn in his stated policy.
The twin crises in the borough of lack of school places and rising rates of homelessness – issues which this council has failed to address since first coming to power in 2006 – have put Fisher’s Tories in a tight corner. Trying to axe another £36 million from its budget over the next two years, due to continued cuts in central government grants, Fisher’s administration has been left with no other option, although spending £26 million on refurbishing the Fairfield Halls over four years appears to be sacrosanct among Croydon Tories.
Fisher was quoted as saying: “I think to protect investment in schools, in school improvement, in a whole range of council services, that is an increase which most local tax-payers would be prepared to fund.
“We have obviously looked very closely at every area of the budget. It is a balancing act between making sure council tax is affordable for the public, taking into account various offers on the table from the government, and also protecting our frontline services.”
The increase will now be rushed through the council’s tax-setting process with the cabinet meeting and council meeting taking place on the same evening, one after another. Such an approach is unprecedented and likely has been driven by an attempt to limit the political damage.
Tony Newman, the leader of the Labour opposition on Croydon Council, accused the Conservatives of “broken promises”.
Speaking to Andrew Pelling in an interview to be broadcast on the Croydon Radio programme Croydon Matters on Sunday, Newman condemned the delay around the town’s budget as “truly shocking”.
“The secrecy surrounding the Town Hall has reached a new high,” Newman said.
The “unprecedented delay in the budget” had left “a ridiculously short period of time for opposition politicians and residents to respond”.
Newman said: “The new council headquarters will haunt this administration, hopefully until after they have gone, costing £1,000 per household in Croydon.”
Newman is likely still to be targeted by Croydon Tories for his part in a 27 per cent Council Tax hike in 2003, though a decade on, and after the Conservatives have done nothing to reverse that historic increase, this latest U-turn will have blunted that sting.
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