STEVEN DOWNES reports on the 2016-2017 Croydon Council budget, which sees more services cut, more jobs at risk, and charges rising
If that happens, it would be the biggest single rise in Council Tax in the borough since 2003, when it went up by 27 per cent. The deputy leader of the council then is the leader of the council now: Labour’s Tony Newman.
Until last month’s Autumn Statement by Tory Chancellor Gideon Osborne, Council Tax rises had been capped at 2per cent for a decade.
With councils across the country under immense financial pressure with massive cuts in the grants they receive from central Government – the Tories have cut crisis-hit Croydon’s grant by 56 per cent – Osborne announced last month that he would kindly allow Croydon and other local authorities to add another 2 per cent to Council Tax towards covering the costs of their additional social care responsibilities. This means that local authorities now have the option of increasing Council Tax by up to 3.9 per cent.
Osborne might have had Croydon’s Tony Newman in mind when he set this elephant-sized political trap for him. Croydon’s biggest Council Tax rise for more than a decade will cement Newman’s unwanted reputation as a local politician who too readily squeezes the residents for more tax, even though any 2016 rise could prove to be the only increase during the term of the current administration.
Croydon Council has got to make cuts of nearly £29 million over the next three years, according to its budget which has been published ahead of next Tuesday’s scrutiny meeting.
In truth, Newman and his finance chief, Simon Hall, have been left with little alternative by Osborne and his Tory mates, who are imposing dogmatic austerity on the country by passing on the pain through local councils. Things have got so bad that one Oxford resident, a “D Cameron of Witney”, has complained to his county council that the cuts have already gone too far. Wonder whether his council leader will bother replying?
Even those deep cuts, and a £4 million “refund” of a grant towards the cost of Croydon looking after unaccompanied (child) asylum seekers, won’t be enough to deliver a balanced budget, though.
Croydon may soon benefit from an end to the Olympic precept, an amount charged by City Hall which helped to pay for some wonderful sporting infrastructure in east London, but which has proved to be of little direct benefit south of the river.
A 2 per cent Council Tax increase will generate around £2.75 million extra revenue for the Town Hall. Sources in Katharine Street suggest that they need more than £3 million in additional revenues to meet all commitments, even after axing another 600 council jobs and making cuts to a range of services.Such is the desperation for extra income at the council that they are still hoping for £1.5million to be raised by renting out space in Fisher’s Folly and other council buildings – yes, the same council landlords who are simultaneously undermining the local office rental market by letting two floors in Davis House rent-free.
The 2016-2017 budget includes £1 million raised through changes to parking charges across the borough and £1.6 million from cutting free garden waste collection. How Veolia picking up an extra bag of green waste per household once a month for six months manages to cost such a sum remains unexplained.
And there continues to be some hope that a large sum, hidden down the side of a sofa in the Town Hall, might yet be found.
There is a view that as a Labour-run council, Newman and his colleagues should be refusing to implement Osborne’s austerity. But under current local authority law, if elected councillors fail to set a proper budget, the council’s chief executive is empowered to step in and take power. Here in Croydon, with Nathan Elvery running the show from the £140 million edifice that is Fisher’s Folly, many might ask whether we would notice any difference.
Newman has told the local newspaper that a Council Tax rise is “inevitable”. A report from a meeting of the Labour group last week said, “A decision regarding Council Tax will be made in January, but the cuts made by the Conservatives mean an increase is probable.”
So Newman and Hall have some leeway, but they will not know until next Thursday the full horror of the Chancellor’s settlement for the borough.
In any case, after three years of zero increases in Council Tax, and given the proposed increase in charges for Meals on Wheels, and cuts in grants to refuse collection, libraries, voluntary groups and other services, the time may be right for residents to pay more for the services we do still receive.
After all, this might be Newman’s only chance to increase council revenues. He won’t want to be raising Council Tax in April 2017 – when the next local elections will be just 13 months away.
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