BUDGET COMMENTARY: With the council’s books balanced, a government-approved increase in Council Tax and front-line services being maintained by the Labour council, it is little wonder that the local Tories have so little to offer, writes Councillor ANDREW PELLING
Croydon has set its Council Tax rate from April, the last financial year before the local elections are held on May 3 2018.
Croydon’s part of the Council Tax will go up by 1.99 per cent, plus a further 3 per cent so that £4.8million can be raised for social care for the elderly and the disabled. Even this, though, won’t meet the expected growth in demand, reckoned to be equivalent to £8million.
There was a time when the Conservatives were in opposition on the council and they would offer an alternative budget, setting out how they would run the borough’s affairs. In those days, Dudley Mead enjoyed getting out a lectern to aid his detailing of his ideas on how the council should be run.
Not this year, though. At Monday’s budget meeting in the Town Hall chamber, the Conservatives offered no alternative budget. The Conservative opposition is weaker for it.
Maybe this should not be seen as a surprise, as in 2014 the Conservatives did not even bother with even the briefest of manifestos before the last local elections. Providing an alternative view on how Croydon Council and its budget should be run can offer a credibility among the electorate in marginal wards like Waddon, which I represent for Labour.
One can only assume that there is not yet an alternative vision that the local Conservatives have conjured up that is good enough to offer up for the local voters to judge them upon.
There is a need to be positive and to offer an upbeat message to the electorate. Though derided by Inside Croydon, the slogan “Ambitious for Croydon” ran such a positive theme for Labour at the last Town Hall election. It is so easy to slip into negativity in opposition just through the very nature of the role to criticise. But for the local Tories, it should also be about proposing alternatives and specifically alternatives that can be delivered within the same, onerous budget constraints that their Tory government has put on our council.
At Monday’s budget meeting, the Conservatives fell into the trap of defining themselves not by what they have got to offer, but by what they are against.
- Croydon Conservatives are against intensification of development in Purley and Shirley (not key marginal wards that might decide the local election result, and in Shirley’s case taking a good deal less of the developments than the area around the ward I represent along the A23);
- Croydon Conservatives are against the building of the much-needed 1,000 homes by Brick by Brick, the council development company;
- Croydon Conservatives are against the charge for garden waste collection (no alternative was offered to pay for halting that charge), and which will run all year from 2018;
- Croydon Conservatives are against the £30million refurbishment of Fairfield Halls;
- Croydon Conservatives are against the gentrification of Surrey Street; and
- Croydon Conservatives are against fly-tipping.
This negative tone might possibly play well in wards in the deep south of the borough, where Labour have never really posed a serious electoral challenge to the Tories. But it is not clear how this “strategy” reaches out to voters in more marginal wards.
In the seven wards in Croydon South’s parliamentary seat that the Conservatives hold, Labour was in second place in just two of those wards, Croham and Purley, though we were close behind in third place in some other southern wards.
One core voting demographic purposefully neglected by the Conservatives is the elderly. The local Tories opposed their own government’s suggestion that the council take a further £4.8million in Council Tax for adult social care that is so needed by the frail, the elderly and our local hospital with a pressure on bed spaces.
Instead of detailing an alternative budget, Conservative councillors demeaned themselves through ill-judged remarks about Simon Hall, the councillor who along with council officers is the author of the Labour council’s budget.
Yvette Hopley’s reference to Hall as a “so-called accountant” was ungraciously less than half withdrawn when she said she withdrew comments referring to Hall as “an accountant”.
Hopley’s speech collapsed as she was about to make another snide personal remark. Her Tory colleague, Vidhi Mohan asked whether Hall’s accountancy qualification was gained at Trump University. It’s no wonder that some MPs and ministers have such a low opinion of local government when they encounter such infantile behaviour.
The negativity made the Tories an easy target for Tony Newman, Labour’s council leader, who was able to portray the Conservatives as “anti-Croydon”.
The council meetings these days are as much played out in the virtual reality of Twitter as it is debated in the chamber. The Tories come prepared with a platoon of keyboard warriors in and around the Town Hall, some armed with memes that someone with some basic skills in Photoshop has got ready for a social media assault. It would be interesting to get a focus group to consider the personal nature of the meme and its negative messaging.
Suffice to say, the claims which the Tories deliver on this virtual poster are deliberately misleading.
Back in real world, the Tories really needed to have spent time in debate trying to secure financial credibility. This is a pressing need because of the ineptitude of the previous Tory council leader, Mike Fisher, who remains a councillor in Shirley, who boasted upon his party’s defeat at the last local election that the council’s finances were in such a mess with a self-confessed £100million “black hole” that Labour would not cope.
Three years on, and Hall and Labour have stabilised the council ship and all without severe controversies over cutting front line services and despite government funding having been reduced drastically.
Spending power per head in Croydon (the government’s preferred measure of councils’ ability to spend) will decline by 15 per cent in real terms from 2015-2016 to 2019-2020 with the government wanting the council to increase the Council Tax by the maximum allowed (currently 4.99 per cent after the social care precept).
This Labour stability comes in contrast to a Tory council that got entangled in an development scheme with John Laing which sees the Council Tax-payers of the borough saddled with a bill for the council offices at least £100million more than any comparable office building in this city, making Fisher’s Folly more expensive per sq ft than The Shard.
Increased local prosperity gives a very helpful following wind to aid the council budget. Since Labour took control the tax base is up by 10 per cent. It had previously fallen by 10.75 per cent in the eight years under the Tories from 2006, as the town haemorrhaged jobs. Nestle, for decades Croydon’s biggest private employers, were alienated by the council leadership and left a town that had been engulfed by the flames in the riots.
Now companies such as Superdrug, Body Shop and EdF have moved their offices to Croydon. HM Revenue and Customs is coming to town, too. Tony Newman announced at the budget meeting that a total of 6,000 Civil Service jobs are coming to Croydon. The local MPs were quick to claim credit for that, though since Gavin Barwell had been promising some sort of intervention in this respect since 2010, his delivery record might not be worth boasting about.
To underpin such growth, the council is to spend on the town’s infrastructure in a way that has not be seen since the 1960s.
It’s a good idea to look at the council budget with a longer view, and to discount the current financial figures using the Retail Price Index, the inflation measuring stick used by the Office for National Statistics. Doing this, we can go all the way to the first time that Labour came to power in Croydon Town Hall in 1994.
The investment in infrastructure next year is spectacularly higher than in every year going back to 1994. It will be double what was spent this year and in real terms is 12 times what it was during one of the years under the Labour council that came to an end in 2006.
That this Labour council is doing so well in squaring the books is something to bear in mind in predicting the result of next year’s local elections in how different things are compared to the last time Labour were the incumbents.
The books have been balanced by greatly reducing enabling and corporate costs, to focus spend on frontline services. More than 530 families have been saved from homelessness by early intervention and therefore £1.8million has been saved.
Moving away from the Tory obsession to privatise anything that isn’t nailed down has seen better contracting and contract management giving better service and value for money, while other services have been brought in-house, such as parts of SEN Transport, and parts of Facilities Management and equipment services.
And some of that over-priced floorspace in Fisher’s Folly has been let out and new facility arrangements introduced, all bringing in £5million a year.
Labour have positive messages to tell that come from doing well.
In real terms, the Council Tax is lower than in six years of the last Tory council – something the Conservatives forgot to mention on their misleading meme. Next year’s Council Tax is 13 per cent lower in real terms than the highest ever Council Tax charged in Croydon – when Mike Fisher’s Tories were in charge in 2009.
There have been 150 successful prosecutions for littering and fly-tipping under Labour, unlike the risible torpor under Phil Thomas when he was the Tory councillor in charge of the state of our streets.
The council is helping working people by encouraging employers to pay the London Living Wage. It is building homes. And in New Addington, it is building a new pool and community centre.
Like the visionary council of the late 1950s and early 1960s, our council is investing in the arts with that £30million refurbishment in the Fairfield Halls.
A stable budget is paying for the one-hour free parking in district centres, including in the south of the borough, helping the small businesses and shops across Croydon when they are facing challenging national increases in business rates.
The new 20mph zones are also funded from savings that come from the budget. But that’s a life-saving policy which the Conservatives have also decided that they will oppose.
Against such positive messages and a stable council budget under our Labour council, perhaps we ought not be so surprised that Croydon’s Tories have so little to offer.
- Andrew Pelling is a Labour councillor for Waddon ward. He is a former leader of the Conservative group on Croydon Council, was London Assembly Member for Croydon and Sutton from 2000-2008, and is a former MP for Croydon Central
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