With 14 months to go until the next local elections, this year’s council budget has fired the starting gun on the Town Hall political campaign. WALTER CRONXITE reports on a Labour gamble to hint at no local tax increases above inflation until 2020
It’s time to cut back on the household budget. You need to save up for an inflation-busting Council Tax increase.
Your Council Tax bill for 2017 to 2018 will be 4.33per cent more than last year’s. But your pay packet’s unlikely to go up anywhere near as much, if at all, this year.
The increase puts another £65 on the £1,494.13 Council Tax bill for a home in Band D. With many Croydon residents living in high-priced properties, they could be facing even steeper increases in their Town Hall taxation.
Of course, in Conservative-run Surrey, the county council is staging a referendum of residents in May seeking their permission to hike their Council Tax by an eye-watering 15per cent if the Tory government doesn’t give them more money to look after an ageing population’s pressing care needs for the elderly.
We confidently predict the outcome of that referendum will be a “No” to any increase, but the burghers of Surrey have at least made a headline-grabbing gesture to demonstrate their frustrations with their own government’s approach to funding social care, after seven years of Tory “austerity”.
Here in Croydon, the Labour-run council is increasing its share of your Council Tax bill by 1.99per cent, just like last year. That’s the maximum that it’s allowed to increase in its Council Tax without holding a referendum. But this is one area of council management where even Tony Newman and his Gang of Four have little control over what goes on.
Because the reality is that our borough’s Council Tax is set by government guidance and government grants. The Conservative government would expect Croydon to increase its element by 1.75per cent to 1.99per cent, regardless of who was in control at the Town Hall.
That’s the problem for local voters in council elections. Whoever you put in power, it’s not your local councillors who set the rate. Even the all-powerful council executives, led by Jo Negrini, the people who really run our borough, have to handle the money that they are allocated by Westminster.
For a better idea of who, between the Tories and Labour in Croydon’s political duopoly, actually manages our money to everyone’s best advantage, Inside Croydon‘s loyal reader is best advised to look how they spend our cash.
After all, who can forget the Tory extravagances of the new council offices, Fisher’s Folly, built at a cost of £148million? And costing more per square foot of office space even than The Shard.
Labour has been trying to rake back some of the costs by taking in lodgers on the upper floors, though council leader Tony Newman appears to have forgotten his promise before the last local elections to “blow open the books” to discover who really was making a massive killing by delivering public offices for at least £100million more than other, similar building might cost.
Croydon Council Tax-payers will remain shackled to the debt created by the building for decades to come.
There were other Tory financial foibles, too, such as #WadGate, when the then Croydon Conservative leader Mike Fisher’s secret added payment to himself of £10,000 in allowances.
Reminded of a record like that when they were last in office, it would be a big gamble for Croydon Council Tax-payers to vote Tory in 2018, because our mole outside the Tory bunker in Purley suggests that Fisher has not given up all hope of a return to the group leadership.
And the state of the council coffers have not been helped by the Tory government snaffling £1.9million of grants which it had promised to Croydon. That money was to be paid out to reward the council for pursuing its housing development. Now, that money is being passed to social care elsewhere, in places such as Tory Surrey.
Croydon was among the 10 worst-treated councils in that money grab. It amounts to an extra 1per cent on your Council Tax bills.
Further cuts are coming in Croydon’s grants from the Tory government. So expect more “Demand Management”, the latest councilspeak euphemism for the local authority avoiding answering the phones and so not having to deal with demands from residents for services.
The results of other, more enlightened good husbandry were announced by Louisa Woodley at Monday’s council meeting. The cabinet member for families, health and social care said that her department had made savings worth the equivalent of 1per cent in Council Tax.
She also told councillors that Croydon’s Gateway scheme has so far saved 553 families from homelessness and netted the council savings of £1.8million in otherwise exorbitant emergency housing rental costs. Compare that to the bills being run-up under the Tories, who dumped whole families in unsafe, overcrowded B&Bs, and often broke the law in doing so. Five years ago, under the Tories, the council was paying £200,000 per month to a single hotel group to provide often sub-standard B&B accommodation for the borough’s homeless.
As one of Labour’s multitude of back-bench councillors, Andrew Pelling, said at the meeting, the savings being made under Woodley, while actively providing better outcomes for the people of the borough is the sort of thing that civic Conservatives used to do. And Pelling ought to know, as a former leader of the Croydon Tories and Conservative MP.
Yet news of the Labour successes over homelessness, or the announcement on Monday evening of one-hour free parking in our town centres, or even the modest achievement of doing what the government has demanded over Council Tax rates, was all so slow to emerge from the council’s press department (annual cost to Council Tax-payers? North of £500,000).
The Conservatives in and around the Town Hall chamber are very well-organised on social media, while the “professionals” working in the council’s press department didn’t manage to get anything out about the Council Tax settlement until 4pm on the day after the Town Hall announcement. Woodley’s news on homelessness did not even merit a press release from the council to trumpet such a triumph. Though the press office might get round to doing something, eventually.
After five years of torrid cuts in Tory-led government grant to Croydon, £100million of savings needed to be found by the council. Now, the government has determined that there should be a further cut of a one-third, seeing the council needing to find another £45million in savings by 2020.
The council’s core spending power will fall to the end of the decade in real terms by 13per cent from £723.77 per resident in 2015 to £632.78.
The local elections are still more than a year away, so council leader Newman has opted to increase Council Tax by the maximum rate now. He promised before the 2014 election not to increase Council Tax in Labour’s first budget, a promise that he did honour.
Last year, the tax was put up 1.99per cent.
Cumulatively, since 2014 under Labour, Croydon’s portion of Council Tax is up 4per cent. Whatever the council press releases say about this being below the rate of inflation, that is plainly not the case. The CPI inflation rate over the period from February 2014 to December 2016 is 2.4per cent.
With a lot of work from the council’s finance chief, Richard Simpson, the “black hole” in the Town Hall’s accounts left by the Tories in 2014 appears to be under control, so much so that Newman was able to tell the council on Monday that both immediately before the 2018 election and for two years after – if Labour is re-elected – Council Tax would frozen in real terms. That was a strong hint that the increase will be lower than 1.99per cent in election year. The Bank of England’s expectation of 2.7per cent inflation in 2017 would also help that real-terms freeze being achieved.
The council is also passing on the government’s proposed 3per cent maximum increase in a charge for social care. Last year, the local Conservatives voted against an increase in money for social care despite the older voter being a key local election demographic for them in the south of the borough.
Taken together with London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s 1.46per cent increase in the amount raised to pay for city-wide services – such as policing and TfL – you get to that bad news of the 4.33per cent increase.
It may all seem a little dry and dull.
But here’s one last statistic about the running of your local council which needs your attention: only one in three Croydon voters bothers to take the brief trip to their polling station to elect their local councillors.
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