Croydon’s Labour-run council should take full advantage of Tory Chancellor Gideon Osborne’s recent decision to allow a 2 per cent increase on Council Tax towards paying for adult social care. That’s a key recommendation in the final report of the Croydon Opportunity and Fairness Commission, which is published tonight.
The endorsement of a Church of England bishop for a local tax rise just a few weeks before that tax has to be set for the coming year is the sort of thing that local politicians usually can only dream about.
That’s what has happened in Croydon, where council leader Tony Newman appears to have got some return for his investment of political capital – and considerable public funds – on his pet project. The Commission was chaired by the Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Rev Jonathan Clark, an Anglican churchman who quotes Gandhi.
The Commission’s 72-page final report, which you can read for yourself here in pdf format, was formally launched this evening in front of an audience of nearly 200 people at Croydon College. The report, which took more than a year to compile and cost the council £200,000, includes 28 key recommendations across six categories.
The report recognises that it is “fairness of opportunity, rather than fairness of outcome” which is important, and which matters to most residents. “What the least well-off lack as much as money is the connections and support networks to get on in life and to bounce back from hard knocks,” the report states.
“Croydon and Britain have a social mobility crisis.”
Disappointingly the published report, although slightly more substantive than its preliminary predecessor which was produced in the autumn, includes many of the same short-comings. The overall sense of superficiality remains, with no hard data and no methodology for measuring unfairness, perceived or otherwise.
Bishop Clark says that the Commission took an “editorial decision” not to publish an annex of data, statistics and tables, because they didn’t want to bore the report’s readers.
And there’s an overwhelming feeling of melancholy about the inevitable conclusion of the report, such is its focus on somehow getting the voluntary sector to take up the slack from local authority services, which have been cut back so savagely.
Thus, you get very American-style suggestions that the council should allow its staff at least three days per year to go off on a voluntary project to “set an example of best practice”.
“Blue Labour” ideas, such as Asset-Based Community Development projects, should receive “support”, the Commission says, and there should be “negotiated devolution” to neighbourhood centres.
Residents in 22 of Croydon’s 24 wards might be disappointed at how much the Commission has focused on New Addington and Fieldway, to the exclusion of other parts of the borough.
Bishop Clark says that is because the area suffers from so much social deprivation; in fact, areas of Broad Green, Thornton Heath and Waddon now exhibit equally bad, or worse, signs of poverty. Sadly, the Commission’s report failed to back-up its findings with any data…
A Croydon Employment Charter is recommended, to seek to reward businesses who adopt the London Living Wage by considering them for council contract programme. And a job brokerage programme, linking in local schools and colleges with employers, should be provided by the council – though Bishop Clark was unable to say whether the Department for Work and Pensions will allow such a scheme to operate inside Job Centres, as it will surely need to do if it is to have any chance of success.
In an exclusive interview with Inside Croydon, which we will be publishing tomorrow, the Bishop was adamant that the work of the Commission was not in any way steered by the borough’s Establishment to achieve a desired outcome. This despite the commissioners including someone from shopping centre developers Westfield, a representative from the Croydon Voluntary Action organisation, a recently retired deputy CEO from the council, and a councillor from the same ward as council leader Tony Newman.
“We were not played,” Bishop Clark said, emphatically.
The biggest single departure from the preliminary report is the recommendation for an increase in Council Tax.
“The Government has made it possible for councils to put a couple of per cent on Council tax to pay for adult social care,” Bishop Clark said. “Interestingly, it would seem that an awful lot of local authorities are going to be doing that, including quite a lot of Tory ones.
“We think it probably has to happen, otherwise adult social care will almost disappear, and that would be much worse.”
Would 2 per cent be enough? “Possibly not,” Bishop Clark said, “but it’s what’s allowed.”
In fact, for 2016-2017, the council could increase Council Tax by the 2 per cent for social care, plus up to 1.99 per cent more towards the costs of providing other services. And this year, for the first time in a decade, Croydon will not be paying a chunk of money to City Hall to pay for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Indications suggest that no firm decision has yet been reached by the council leadership. Therefore, it remains to be seen whether Newman and his finance colleague, Simon Hall, use the backing of the Bishop and the Commission to seek a 3.99 per cent maximum Council Tax increase when they announce it in March.
In his introduction to the Commission’s report, Bishop Clark writes: “The scale of the task is immense. As the latest Index of Multiple Deprivation confirms, the map of the poverty in Croydon looks remarkably similar to that of 30 years ago, with the north of the borough much more deprived than the south and areas like Broad Green and Selhurst containing some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country.
“Croydon’s house prices, like those in the rest of London, have increased to the point of unaffordability for many workers. At the same time, government welfare changes and the even higher cost of housing in inner London are forcing many of the poorest families to move out of central London and into outer London boroughs like Croydon.
“Public services too are under pressure. By 2019-2020, the council’s budget will have been cut by 74 per cent. And the borough does not receive its fair share of funds, just £378 per head compared to £637 per head in Southwark or £586 per head in Lambeth…
“The arguments we have consistently found most convincing have been those that focus on people-led change,” Bishop Clark writes. “Ideas like the Living Wage have come from the ground up… Pressure and persuasion are making the difference.
“As Mahatma Gandhi once put it, we must be the change we want to see.”
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