CROYDON IN CRISIS: Britain’s rottenest borough is now blaming faulty phone lines for needlessly prosecuting residents over Council Tax, when the householders can’t get through to Fisher’s Folly to make their payments.
By STEVEN DOWNES
Last month, on the first anniversary of Croydon issuing a Section 114 notice to admit that they had run out of money, Inside Croydon reported a range of troubling signals that the cash-strapped council was in a state of collapse, after cut after cut after cut had left it unable to perform even the most routine, statutory functions.
Now the council’s excuse for its poor service is that its phones don’t work.
The latest issue of Private Eye magazine picked up on our reporting, and quoted a Croydon councillor as saying, “There comes a point when the council is not fit for purpose.
“When a local authority is incapable of routinely collecting its own Council Tax, something is very wrong indeed.”
They listed the various other services which had been axed since the S114 notice last year, ahead of the next round of budget cuts, totalling £38million, on top of this year’s £44.7million and with it, hundreds of frontline workers being made redundant.
The Private Eye headline was: “All falling apart”.
And now officials have emerged from the propaganda bunker at Fisher’s Folly and admitted the delays in the registering of births and deaths, and the troubles people are having to get through to make Council Tax payments.
“We have been experiencing intermittent issues with our phones – we are really sorry for the inconvenience this has caused and we are investing in upgrading our whole telephony system in the new year,” some flak offered this week.
The reality, of course, is that council directors have been deliberately cutting the number of staff who answer phones or who staff the desks at its contact centres for many years.
The geniuses who run the council, from Nathan “Efficiency is in our DNA” Elvery, through Jo “Negreedy” Negrini, to current incumbent Katherine Kerswell, have all pursued a “digital first” policy, thinking that by getting more people to fill in online forms and make payments on the interweb, they can do away with any human contact and save the authority millions of pounds.
That approach is demonstrated in the boilerplate comments from the council’s press office this week, after their lame claim that their phones don’t work. “We would encourage residents to get in touch via our website, http://www.croydon.gov.uk, where you can access a wide range of services, including Council Tax payment.”
The council reckons it has received “fewer than five” complaints about residents being unable to get through on its phonelines to make late Council Tax payments.
Inside Croydon has heard from several councillors, Labour as well as Conservative, who say that an increasing feature of their casework are complaints about the remote council not answering its phones, especially on the issue of taking Council Tax payments.
We have also received more than five complaints directly from frustrated and angry residents who feel ill-served by their council on this issue. Of coourse, it may be that the council has received so few complaints because… people have not been able to get through on the phone.
One gullible hack has been regurgitating council publicity bollocks that Fisher’s Folly is “not experiencing any issues with Council Tax collection rates with the Council Tax team continuing to answer on average 1,600 calls a week”, without realising that anyone who receives a court summons – including a £235 fine – will have their delayed payment still included in the collection rate statistics. Trebles all round!
So as far as the council is concerned, they really couldn’t care less whether someone is able to get through to them on the phone to make a payment or not – they will get their money, whatever, perhaps even with an added bonus for their deliberately constructed remoteness.
The public, meanwhile, are increasingly finding themselves trapped in a wormhole of council incompetence and disinterest. The council’s website makes this clear: log-in, and the payment options offered are online or via direct debit. No telephone number to make urgent payments, or seek help or advice, is obviously available.
The Council Tax payment phone lines, in common with many Croydon services, are open only 30 hours each week, from 10am to 4pm on weekdays.
The council has made no efforts to hire additional phone operators to work additional hours – say from 8am to 7pm on weekdays, or to offer a service at weekends, the times when people are not at work themselves, when they are often unable to sit waiting on the phone in the hope that someone from their council might answer.
The excuse given is that contact staff to answer residents’ phone calls are a cost that the cash-strapped council cannot afford.
The very well-staffed council press office (which Inside Croydon is not aware has been subject to the kind of drastic cuts imposed on the Safer Neighbourhood Team or the graffiti response crew), meanwhile continue to trot out the same tired old excuses about dealing with Fisher’s Folly via its clunky website.
“Parents wanting to register a birth can book online and we have appointments available this month but if you need an appointment sooner please call the contact centre and we will try to help,” they said. Inside Croydon is aware that the appointments for registering a birth continue to be available only after a lengthy delay of several months.
“We are working as quickly as possible to reduce the number of unregistered births and we ask for your patience at this time.
“We’ll register your baby as swiftly as we can.”
Which at the moment, is around two-thirds of the duration of an average pregnancy.
Read more: Council can no longer cope with basic tasks
Read more: Further £38.4m to be sliced from next year’s council budget
Read more: Kerswell culls 58 more jobs as council wrestles with budget
Read more: ‘Mistakes will be made’ warn staff after latest round of cuts
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