The ruling Conservative group’s Cabinet meets tonight to rubber-stamp the budget plans for the borough for the coming year. Here, we examine where their priorities lay, and highlight some startling inconsistencies
So, no Council Tax increase in Croydon for a second year. That’s got to be a good thing. Isn’t it?
Inevitably, a no-increase Council Tax is only a good thing if you accept the propaganda issued by the council’s press office on a superficial, no-questions-asked basis. In fact, the residents of Croydon are effecyively paying considerably more for fewer services than they were in the past.
Take this example: Say on one day, half a dozen eggs in the local corner shop or Tesco’s cost you £1.20. The next day, when you went to buy some more eggs, they were still £1.20 per box, but inside each box, you only got five eggs. Is that really a price “freeze”, or is it in fact an increase in what you are paying?
That’s exactly what’s happening in Croydon over the past 18 months, and looks set to continue for another year.
One of the documents being considered in this week’s annual round of budget discussions is the report from the council’s scrutiny committee meeting last month which invited Mike Fisher, our brave leader, and key officers to explain the setting of the Council Tax.
At that meeting, Fisher said that the budget options highlighted a desire not to increase Council Tax as the council recognised the increased financial pressures on residents.
Of course, what that comment fails to point out is that Croydon Council is not allowed, by the government, to increase Council Tax without risking swingeing financial penalties – something that Fisher and the council’s “Efficiency Tzar” Nathan Elvery omitted to mention in all their reports. Thus the illusion is created that Croydon is freezing Council Tax for the sake of the residents, instead of the reality – because they have been told they have to.
Fisher also says that the council wishes to protect frontline services. But even a cursory glance at the so-called “efficiencies” and cuts being proposed to council services demonstrates that in reality, this is very far from the case.
“Frontline” services, such as those provided by Adult Social Care and the Housing and the Children’s departments are to suffer another round of cuts in the coming year, each of around 2.5 per cent.
Meanwhile, Taberner House’s “central” departments, which include Finance (the people who write the budget), and those who provide support to councillors, the chief executive’s department and Human Resources, have been lined up for a cut of less than 2 per cent.
It could be argued that it is unwise to cut the finance function, as even with their current staffing, they have failed to stop an overspend across the council, which stood at £2.4 million before £1.6 million was slipped on to the balance sheet from the council’s reserves in December.
The scrutiny committee did ask about the need for reserves and at that point they were advised by officers, presumably Elvery, that it was the reserve for unexpected emergencies, like the riots. Unmentioned was the annual exercise of raiding the reserves to hide the corporate failure to stick to the council’s annual budget.
So given the failure to balance the books and meet budget targets, a few less bodies in the finance department could cost the council dearly – after all, it has still got that £50 million mountain of uncollected Council Tax to address. Oddly, one thing missing from the scrutiny presentation was Croydon’s Council Tax collection rate (which is among the worst of all outer London boroughs).
Primary schools to get a fraction of the millions given to Fairfield Halls
Fisher stated that the council was making “significant investment” to the borough’s infrastructure, a point reinforced by Jon Rouse, the chief executive, who talked about the desperate need for repair within the fabric of the borough.
Hold that thought for a moment, and then consider that the third highest amount of the council’s capital investment is actually going to Fairfield Halls (a private commercial organisation), to the tune of a staggering £26 million.
Now compare that to the amount of money which Fisher and our councillors are setting aside as what they describe as “significant investment” for the 85 primary schools across the length and breadth of the borough: a grand total of just £7 million, and this at a time when Croydon has a large number of children sitting at home not being educated because they can’t get a school place.
Of course, the lack of primary school places is a London-wide problem. Had Fisher bothered to attend the London-wide congress of council leaders last year, where this issue was discussed, he may have been better informed.
The “Public Realm” across the borough is to get £16 million – or £10 million less than one privately owned building, the Fairfield Halls, that arguably does not serve all communities and age groups equally across the borough, given its rather limited programme of events.
In fact, the privately run Fairfield Halls is even getting more from Croydon Council in 2012-2013 than the regeneration pot allocated to the refurbishment of London Road following the riots.
The London council leaders’ congress that Fisher, who receives allowances of £53,000 per year in his role as Croydon’s council leader, failed to attend also discussed the post-riots London Recovery Plan and the special fund of £50 million which had been set up.
Elvery explained that for services and departments that were not judged a “high public priority”, the emphasis was to seek to reduce overhead costs and identify efficiencies.
Now, under the proposed council budget, gross expenditure in Elvery’s own department increases by 9 per cent. That will mean that the Finance department has more than three and a half times the spending of the Planning and Environment department, and nearly double that of Adult Social Care and Housing. A “high public priority”?
The true extent of the spend here is hidden by recharges and other income generation that keeps the actual net budget relatively small. However, finance still has 700 staff, and of these only around 145 work in the contact centre. That means that the bulk of the staff in Elvery’s apparently ring-fenced department do not have a “public-facing” role.
That also makes it one of the council’s largest departments – huge compared to the chief executive’s 166 (although nine of these are dedicated to working in Jon Rouse’s office). That empire-building 700 under Elvery is unprecedented for a central department in Croydon Council.
Fisher was challenged at the scrutiny meeting on the need to make significant numbers of staff in the Children’s department redundant while continuing to build the shiny new Headquarters.
In response, Fisher said the costs of the HQ – part of a £450 million regeneration scheme of council properties – were exaggerated. The only trouble is, we just have to take Fisher’s word for that, because the council has never been transparent about the costs of building the wonderful, new, palatial council offices, and it still refuses to provide key information – even to the point of defying the Office of the Information Commissioner over FOIs on the subject. So any “exaggeration” of figures about the new HQ building is really all Fisher’s own fault.
Fisher did put a figure on the cost of building Bernard Weatherill House: £123 million. “Whilst still a substantial investment, this figure represented the most cost-effective way of delivering efficient services for the future,” the minutes record our brave leader as arguing.
One of the key reasons for moving to new offices, Fisher went on to say, was that Taberner House would be too expensive to continue to maintain and run. This decision was based on the report produced by Mace, one of Croydon Council’s favourite consultants and contractors, and a company which stands to benefit financially from the building of the new HQ as they were already lined up as the project managers for the build. Mace were paid £750,000 by Croydon Council last year, presumably the bulk of which was for working on the HQ project.
And what was the cost of keeping Taberner House fit for purpose for another 10 years? The committee noted that it was £40 million – more than £80 million less than the cost of building the shiny new replacement.
Incidentally, the scrutiny function itself is up for a cut of two staff – maybe they are scrutinising too much?
Council claims to save millions, by hiring someone on £765 per day
Let’s consider the investment items, where the council is putting in extra money. When we look at Planning, it’s all very important stuff, with more money for town centre cleansing, and more money for the marginal ward of Waddon, whose three seats keep the Conservatives with a majority on the council.
Then we come to Nathan Elvery’s award-winning Resources and Customer Services and we see items like:
- Court Cost income unachievable
- Access Strategy Benefits shortfall
- Contract Centre Voice Recognition savings undeliverable
These are all things that have failed, while the council has incurred considerable extra procurement costs for its ICT contract. This from a council which barely a week ago was defending the use of a £765 a day interim head of procurement because he was supposed to be saving the council millions in procurement. Croydon Council spent a total of £20 million of your money last year on expensive interim staff and consultants.
Meanwhile, there are to be cuts to staff in areas such as learning disability, welfare rights and the tenancy relations team, along with a massive cut in the Children’s department where there are to be 10 redundancies in the early years section alone, along with cuts in areas like the safeguarding board and reductions to the school improvement programme. All of these points were picked up by the scrutiny committee.
Fisher’s reply was that the government wants councils to have less to do with education. But what about overseeing the welfare of Croydon’s children?
Further reductions include staff cuts to the domestic violence unit, although one growth area seems to be picking up stray dogs. Croydon really does understand where its priorities are. Further savings include a reduction of one press officer. Just the one?
Then we move on to the Step Change efficiencies which include 34 job losses through closing children’s homes, five redundancies in school improvement and a staggering 27 jobs to go in what is left of Arts and Heritage. This from a council that is lobbing £26 million to a private arts venue in the borough. This looks less like a strategy for cuts, and more like favouritism and patronage.
Then we move on to the cuts where the council has decided to stop doing things. In Adult Social Care and Housing, that includes the closure of Craignish Short Stay Unit, at a saving of £186,000 – or the cost of hiring one interim consultant for a year, such as the aforementioned Paul Davies.
The cuts in the Children’s also include a reduction in funding to voluntary groups for supplementary education, mentoring and community languages – vital for these organisations to survive, and all for the sake of saving £30,000.
Throughout Croydon Council’s cabinet papers, services to the most vulnerable in Croydon are being axed, while multi-million pound capital grants to the likes of the Fairfield Halls and the budget for failing, large internal council departments, such as Finance, are ring-fenced.
Last week, in looking at the top salaries on Croydon Council, we posed the rhetorical question: are we really all in this together?
One passage from the Appendix to the scrutiny committee’s report demonstrates beyond question just how concerned Mike Fisher and his mates are primarily concerned with feathering their own nest, rather than the interests of the people of Croydon, who they are supposed to represent.
“Members [of the scruting committee] asked for confirmation of the percentage decrease in funding that the Council had received. Officers [that is, Rouse and Elvery] explained that the available funding had decreased by 13.5 per cent over the last four years.”
Then comes the good bit: “It was therefore suggested by some members of the Committee that it would be appropriate for the Cabinet to have a corresponding reduction of one post, to reflect the Council’s diminished size and as a symbolic gesture, especially as each Cabinet Member was in receipt of £40-50,000.”
So, let’s cut the number of Conservative councillors who pocket £40,000-plus per year, as a symbolic gesture, to show we’re all in it together, right? Wrong, according to Mike Fisher.
The report says: “The Leader explained that whilst this was an option, he was concerned at the impact on democratic responsibility that could be caused by concentrating decision-making power into fewer positions.” Like making key decisions in secret, among 10 hand-picked Tories, rather than debated and discussed in full council with all 70 elected councillors?
The report continues: “He was also confident that all ten members of the Cabinet carried out vital functions and performed well.” Mike Fisher trousers £53,000 in allowances each year as leader of Croydon Council.
When you analyse the areas to suffer the greatest cut-backs in council funding, it is clear to see where Mike Fisher, Jon Rouse and Nathan Elvery’s priorities lay.
- Inside Croydon: brought to you from the heart of the borough, free of charge, an independent voice standing for freedom of speech for the people of Croydon
- Croydon’s Budget (Part 1): We’re all in this together (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon spends £1.7m on consultants and saves… £800,000 (insidecroydon.com)
- Croydon Council paid £20m for interim staff in 2011 (insidecroydon.com)
- Mead says he’s “proud” of Croydon’s £50m uncollected tax (insidecroydon.com)