The rejection of Ken Livingstone at the polls last month was in some ways a move away from the nostalgia for 1980s London politics. It may be time to part company with other 20th century perspectives of London local government.
Our recent comparison between neighbouring Lambeth, Southwark, Bromley and Croydon shows things are far from what you might expect.
Lambeth’s bad, almost mad, reputation established when “Red Ted” Knight was demonised by the tabloids 30 years ago has never really been shaken off, through the Brixton riots of the early 1980s, various scandals over financial mismanagement and lack of budgetary control, and even a period of a LibDem-Tory coalition at the Town Hall.
The district auditor was called in at Lambeth more than once. In contrast, while Lambeth was known nationally as a “basket case” council, Croydon, its neighbour to the south, always had a reputation for being safe and steady – whoever was in control.
Yet in 2012, maybe that comparison is overdue for a drastic overhaul.
As we highlighted last week, Lambeth charges its residents less Council Tax than Croydon. Of the four neighbouring boroughs in our brief survey last week, it was Croydon who has the highest Council Tax at Band D at £1,456.83. Labour-controlled Lambeth’s, by comparison, is just £1,232.01 – almost £20 per month less than Croydon residents are expected to pay.
The Tory group that controls Croydon Council often raises the spectre of the 27 per cent Council Tax rise introduced under the last Labour-run council, forgetting to mention that in the last six years since they resumed control, they have has six opportunities, but have never attempted to reverse that ill-judged increase.
If we set aside the modest decrease in the Mayor of London’s “precept” – City Hall’s cut of the Council Tax cake – and focus solely on the money which is raised locally, then the last increase in Croydon Council Tax was 0.8 per cent in 2010. Two years ago, Croydon Council’s Leader, Mike Fisher said that even to freeze council tax at that point “would have been a gimmick”. So just before an election, he delivered a non-gimmicky increase of less than 1 per cent.
For the past two years, Council Tax levied by Croydon Council has been frozen; this was not a “gimmick”, but under strict orders to the borough from local government minister “Big” Eric Pickles.
Croydon not only compares badly on Council Tax with Labour-run Lambeth. It does not stand up very well in comparison with Tory Hammersmith and Fulham.
H&F seems to cut its Council Tax every year, down 4 per cent this year and it now has the third lowest Council Tax in the country. We’d like to ask Mike Fisher if he believes that this Conservative-controlled council’s cut in Council Tax is just a “gimmick”, but public servant Fisher isn’t answering our emails.
So impressed is Mayor Boris Johnson by this work that he has head-hunted the west London council’s leader, Stephen Greenhalgh, to be his deputy mayor for policing. It is telling that Johnson does not go talent spotting in Croydon for the likes of Fisher or our Assembly Member, Steve “I’m worth it” O’Connell.
Local Conservatives say that they don’t get a fair deal from the local government grant system, with lower grants per head than inner London boroughs. That does though seem to be their own fault and that of their own local Tory MPs in not making an effective case for a better settlement for Croydon.
It was the Conservative-led government that meted out one of the biggest cuts in local government grant in the region to Croydon Council (while sparing Surrey) and also axed the £71 million Croydon re-generation LEGI programme, which was granted by the Labour government.
Cabinet allowance increase: suspended, but never cancelled
One thing that Fisher has been keen not to freeze, however, has been the generous allowances that he and his other senior Tory councillors receive. Croydon has long been among the highest payers, in London and nationally, to cabinet member councillors and Fisher made sure that his top team got a hefty, inflation-busting increase just after being returned in control of the Town Hall in 2010. Only a public outcry led to those increases being suspended. They have never been cancelled.
Inside Croydon reckons that it has been possible for Councillor Fisher to claim allowances worth nearly £400,000 since he became Leader of the Council in 2006.
That works out as Fisher is being paid £116 per hour, if you assume he does an average of 10 hours’ council work a week, which according to some Town Hall insiders is a generous estimate.
This doesn’t include the other benefits that Fisher and many councillors receive.
These number free parking permits, council-paid mobile phones, a Croydon laptop for logging on to the council’s website (when it is not down for days at end for “essential maintenance”) and numerous jollies to attend as part of official “duties”, such as last month’s Mayor’s inaugural banquet, which was staged at a cost of £20,000.
The allowances paid to the Leader of Lambeth Council are not so far behind the amount paid to Fisher. But in Lambeth, some of the leading councillors have opted to make serving their residents their full-time occupation, giving up their jobs, often in highly paid careers, to do so. So they have actually reduced their incomes in order to pursue their calling for public service.
There’s less of a sense of public service sacrifice among some of Fisher’s team, where Croydon’s first couple, Dudley and Margaret Mead, manage to bank nearly £90,000 a year in allowances between them, much better than the £139 a week state pension many other Croydon OAPs are forced to try to live on.
Cushioned from the financial realities of retirement, cabinet member Margaret Mead is reputed to spend much of her time on one of Croydon’s many fine golf courses, while Cuddly Dudley indulges the Fairfield Halls’ programme of all-in wrestling, male strippers and Chubby Brown comedy by doling out millions of our council cash.
Croydon under Fisher, the Meads and their colleagues is lagging behind Lambeth, Southwark and Bromley in every category we measured – including primary and secondary education – with the exception of crime, where the inner London boroughs have worse rates, yet where Croydon is notably much worse than its outer London neighbour Bromley.
Paying more Council Tax than any of the three neighbouring boroughs, Croydon residents might reasonably expect to have weekly bin collections, as all three neighbours have. But no.
You might well ask Councillor Fisher, on his £116 per hour, what your money is being spent on.
There remains mystery over the financial deals struck with private “partners” for the £450 million Urban Regeneration Vehicle, including a shiny new council HQ, all part of some property speculation our council committed the borough to just before the property boom went bust. But we do know that our council has taken out a multi-million pound loan to keep the “Hub” project going, which will need to be repaid for generations of Croydon residents to come.
With above average allowances for the senior councillors, above average pay for the £248,000 a year Chief Executive, and nearly 30 people on the council payroll earning more than £100,000pa, plus a further £20 million spent in 2011 and in 2012 on consultants and temporary staff, it’s little wonder that Croydon’s council services are declining to levels worse than the one-time “basket case” of London boroughs.
- Inside Croydon: A news source about Croydon that is not based in Redhill. Post your comments on this article below. If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Croydon Council and a numbers game that doesn’t add up (insidecroydon.com)
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- Croydon Council and the cuts: playing a numbers game (insidecroydon.com)
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