Political editor WALTER CRONXITE reports on how the opposition group last night supported tax increases in the ‘last Blairite council in London’
The Conservative “opposition” group on Croydon Council last night voted with the majority Labour councillors to see Council Tax increased by an inflation busting 4.88 per cent for 2019-2020.
It was effectively an admission by the minority group of Tory councillors, led by Tim Pollard, that after nearly a decade of the Conservative Government’s austerity policy, the council needs the cash raised by the near-maximum increase. The Tories did, though, do their best to make it plain that they don’t trust the Labour-run council to spend the money wisely.
The decision voted through means that under Labour council leader Tony Newman, Croydon residents have had the maximum, or near-maximum, Council Tax increase imposed upon them each year for the last four years.
Last night’s vote means that Band D Council Tax-payers see their annual payment to Croydon Town Hall and to City Hall to go up £79.86 to £1,716.82 per year.
With Croydon having lots of homes rated above Band D, many households will be paying considerably more.
In reality, Council Tax levels are set by central government, so local Tories stance last night was, to some extent, in line with what their Westminster colleagues are prepared to allow.
All 29 Tory councillors voted for each element of the increases:
- 2.99 per cent by the local council (the maximum allowed by the Government without the necessity for a Council Tax referendum);
- 1 per cent for adult social care; and
- 8.93 per cent for extra City Hall policing and fire officers.
Oddly, though, when the sum of those figures was voted on, there was trouble for the Conservatives.
For the first time, Croydon’s councillors were using an electronic voting system (cost of installation unknown, but potentially a modernising improvement on 70 men and women shouting either “Aye!” or “No!” every time they vote in 2019). It did turn the Town Hall chamber into something resembling the main stage at the Eurovision Song Contest, though slightly more camp, with the voting displayed on a large scoreboard, showing provisional and then final votes.
The system only wiped all the votes cast mid-voting on one of the four votes.
In the vote of the final addition of the component increases that all councillors had supported, two Tory councillors were shown as voting against.
Ian Parker, the Coulsdon councillor and local Conservative Party election agent, thought better of his own ill-discipline and swiftly reversed his rebellious “No” vote to a well-whipped “Yes”.
But Stuart Millson, the councillor for a ward with the Tolkienesque name of Selsdon Vale and Forestdale, would not be persuaded to change his vote against.
Even a visit from the Tory group’s deputy chief whip Helen Redfern (Purley Oaks and Riddlesdown) for a “friendly chat” could not make Millson budge. Millson was seen escorted off to the headmasters’ study after the meeting to explain his odd arithmetic and why, in his view, the parts can not add up to the final sum.
The havoc caused to local authorities by the prolonged imposition of Gideon Osborne’s austerity policy is being felt across the country to such an effect that even Conservatives working in local government are beginning to concede that enough is enough.
Croydon’s Council Tax debate saw the Tories with few telling points to make, and opting instead to focus on attacking a couple of Labour councillors personally.
Points made included Pollard calling on Newman to apologise for the £11million (and rising) overspend on the Fairfield Halls refurbishment. Newman’s feeble-sounding excuse was changed plans and unexpected asbestos (like no one expected asbestos in a building built at the end of the 1950s).
There were oft-repeated Tory moans about the recruitment of more traffic wardens and the council getting in more income than expected for parking and bus lane fines. The Tories were reaching out to their heartland, car-driving voters from the south of the borough.
Elsewhere, and with much to choose from, zero progress on Westfield, extra borrowing by Brick by Brick, zero council homes built, anti-Semitism and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were the scatter gun Tory targets.
The most concerning point made was by Councillor Jason Cummings, the former Woolworths Pick ‘n Mix manager turned Downing Street SPAD, who spoke about the huge growth in debt added on to what he and his fellow Tories had left when they were in power in Katharine Street.
Council debt will climb to £1,600,000,000, or £12,100 for every Council Tax-payer in the borough.
Councillors were offered the assurance that dividends could be expected from Brick by Brick. Which is nice, though given the council-owned housebuilders’ record for non-delivery so far, hardly any reassurance at all.
But the main focus of the Conservatives were personal barbs.
A number of Tory councillors had a go at the pay of the chair of the Health and Well-Being Board.
Councillor Louisa Woodley’s pay as chair of the committee is a sumptuous cabinet-standard £45,168. Woodley, the councillor for New Addington South and previously a member of Newman’s cabinet, was appointed by Newman as chair of the Health and Well-Being Board following last May’s local elections.
In the previous 2014-2018 council administration, the post paid £23,746. Which means that Newman arranged for a 90 per cent pay hike for the position as he gave the job to Woodley.
One Conservative councillor after another compared the experience of Croydon’s elderly, forced to spend the winter months shivering in unheated care homes, to the generous largesse of being pocketed by Woodley. The pay priority was wrong, Parker said, with the “elderly in council-run homes left without heating, wearing coats to keep warm”.
Redfern used the old orator’s trick of reading out a list, in this case the embarrassingly long list of cancelled Health and Well-Being meetings since Woodley was appointed as its chair. Including dates arranged through to the end of this year’s council business in April, out of 11 board meetings that have been set, seven have been postponed or cancelled.
Between June last year and February, a period of eight months, Woodley’s committee met just once.
One Katharine Street figure, when asked whether Woodley had been unwell in the past year, or was unfit for the position, answered spikily, “In my opinion, the latter.”
Almost all councillor pay had undergone a five-year freeze from 2013. Last year, in a move closely overseen by Newman, Croydon’s councillor allowances were increased by 2 per cent for backbenchers and an average of 5 per cent for Labour cabinet members.
Labour blamed Tory privatisation for the care home troubles and – in the only news announcement of the night – said that, like the borough’s previously outsourced libraries and parks contracts, the care homes will be brought back under the direct control of the council. The 40 per cent of care home staff who do not receive the London Living Wage will have that rectified under the Labour council.
Still the personal remarks did not end.
Two comments came from Jason Cummings about the effect of patronage in the hands of Newman as Labour leader.
First, Cummings wondered aloud, with so much debt being built up, “How long the last London council bastion of the Blairites can last?”
Cummings then chastised Momentum member Niro Sirisena, the Fairfield ward councillor since last May, who despite his inexperience was rapidly promoted to a deputy cabinet role, and the £21,595 allowances that go with it.
Cummings asked: “I wonder how much it has cost for you to suspend your Corbynite tendencies and support this administration?”
Because of the format of council meetings, Sirisena was unable to provide an immediate reply, though some of his council colleagues are expecting a riposte to Cummings might soon be found scribbled on a sticker and stuck to a lamp-post in the town centre, in typical modern urban revolutionary style.
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