Labour was in total denial about its responsibility for the financial mess it has got Croydon into, writes Leader of the Opposition Cllr Tim Pollard
Politicians are rarely the public’s favourite people, but there are two things politicians sometimes do which particularly incense our constituents. One is saying one thing before an election and then doing the opposite once in power. The other is constantly blaming someone else for everything bad.
The Labour Leader Cllr Newman gave us a handy summary of his mindset at the budget-setting council meeting on 29 February. According to him, everything good which is happening in Croydon is down to his astounding shrewdness and everything bad is all the fault of the nasty Tory government. For sure, he’s broken his pledge on council tax made just two years ago, but it’s not his fault, it’s all nasty old George Osborne’s fault. It’s a scandal, it’s an outrage, it’s an unprecedented attack on the vulnerable……… all the same old Labour spin, with no sense that he takes any responsibility for his administration and the decisions it has taken.
And let’s not beat about the bush. He has broken his pre-election pledge: at the Croydon Advertiser hustings two years ago he said ‘If Labour is elected there would be no council tax increase above inflation – ever’. Inflation is virtually zero at the moment. ‘Ever’ is clearly not not a very long time in Newman-speak.
Compare that with Labour Merton. There the leader of the council has made it clear that a promise is a promise and he has refused to break his pledge to freeze council tax. So in Croydon the council is grabbing an extra 3.99%, but in a borough where the leader has felt bound by his manifesto pledges that’s 0%. We weren’t at the meeting to debate whether Merton Labour is right or wrong – that’s their business – but it is quite clear that a Labour promise in Merton is worth 100% more than a Labour promise is in Croydon.
And that’s not the only pledge this administration has broken. It’s pledge to give a full hour of free parking in district centres has already gone in the bin and it’s now being taken away in Coulsdon, which already had it. And that’s not to mention dropped pledges to withdraw from the South London Waste Partnership or tear up the Libraries contract. Worse, we now hear that a recent Labour Group meeting voted that it was ok to break their commitment not to close any libraries, so maybe we’ve got that to look forward to. Their willingness to break every promise they make is truly breathtaking. Compare that with a Conservative London Mayor, Boris Johnson, who has kept his promise to cut his part of the council tax.
So that’s the administration’s record of broken promises. Now let’s look at the other big issue: it’s all somebody else’s fault.
Has Croydon council had a tough settlement from the Government over the last five years? Yes it has. The government has had to make tough choices to bring public spending under control. Was that tough settlement known to Croydon Labour when it made its local election manifesto pledges? Yes, it was.
The scale of the reductions in local government spending was actually made clear in the Comprehensive Spending Review of 2013. Perhaps Cllr Newman was gambling on the country electing a Labour Government in 2015 to come to his rescue. If so he will have been bitterly disappointed when the then Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, made it clear that an incoming Labour government would give local authorities exactly the same settlement as the coalition government had already announced.
The truth is that he would have been in exactly the same position even if the country had elected Ed Miliband as prime minister in May last year. But the country didn’t. And it is worth reminding ourselves why it didn’t.
Most researchers and pollsters agree that the key reason the country voted Conservative – and elected the first majority Conservative government for 23 years – was because Labour was still in denial about the fact that it had spent too much when it was in power from 97-2010. Everyone agrees about this – even an independent Labour report produced by Jon Cruddas. Everybody, that is, except Jeremy Corbyn, who believes that the electorate didn’t back Labour because it wasn’t left-wing enough. Good luck with that one, Jezza.
The reality is that the current reductions in public spending can trace their roots back to Gordon Brown’s 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review. In that review he announced that Labour was to double public spending. And it did, by 2010 it had well over doubled the cost of the state. In doing it Blair and Brown perpetrated a massive con trick on the public. Rather than be honest and say ‘if you want us to spend more, we have to raise more tax’ they instead found ingenious ways to spend on credit. Effectively they were saying ‘we want to spend now, let’s let our kids sort out how to pay for it’.
And in spite of the coalition and then Conservative governments’ efforts to reduce it, national debt is still going up, albeit much less quickly. The truth is that even today, 8 years after the recession, the Government is still spending around £70 billion per year more than it raises in taxes.
So far Labour has opposed every proposed cut in every department. So, Cllr Newman, if you want local authority spending to be protected you need to say what you would cut instead. The NHS? Education? The Armed Forces? The Police? What’s it to be?
And the reality of the cuts that local authorities like Croydon face is that they are nowhere near as severe as the Leader pretends. He’s fond of quoting the figure for the reduction in the direct grant to Croydon whilst ‘forgetting’ to mention that a good part of that is being replaced by business rates. The Government is to allow councils to keep most of the money raised in business rates in their borough, so that by 2020 virtually all the money spent by councils will be raised locally, making councils truly accountable for their own decisions. He also forgets to mention a load of other ways the government is allowing councils to benefit from economic growth, such as the New Homes Bonus.
In truth, if you look at what the effect of all these changes taken together will be, the government is expecting Croydon council to be able to spend in four years time almost exactly what it will spend this year. At a time when inflation is effectively zero, this is not an impossible task.
Cllr Newman moans about the damping payment being made to Surrey Council, whilst ‘forgetting’ to mention that it only gets this because its grant reduction is proportionately much greater than Croydon’s. The truth is that Croydon is still £800k better off than he was expecting, but we shouldn’t expect him to give the government any credit for that!
And so it comes back to ‘choices’. Labour nationally chose to double public spending without sorting out how it was going to pay for it. The Conservatives chose to correct that and in the general election just nine months ago the people approved that choice. And locally Labour has chosen to waste money at an astounding rate.
£200,000 for a Fairness Commission. £120,000 to sponsor a cycle race. £100,000 each year for a free summer festival. £60,000 to shift a load of boulders around the borough (yes, they really did that). A six million pound overspend in the adult social services budget. Millions of pounds to move the entrance to Fairfield Halls round a corner. Three million pounds per year paid over the odds for agency staff rather than having proper full time employees. Four million pounds to prop up Box Park – a private sector company offering eateries next to East Croydon Station – with a three million pound cheap loan and £160,000 per year subsidy, including the council renting units. Just why does the tax payer need to rent eight box park units, Cllr Newman?
And just today we had notification through of the appointment of yet more management consultants at the cost one and a half million pounds. And the council admits that it’s had to appoint these consultants because it it can’t manage its own budget!
The truth is that Cllr Newman can always find the money for Labour’s pet vanity projects, then he moans about the government when he’s struggling to fund key services.
And we see an administration which shamelessly panders to its own supporters whilst penalising areas which don’t vote Labour. When it wanted to close a leisure centre it was Purley which was put forward for the chop. When it wanted to fund increased street cleaning in the north it was the south which got less to pay for it. The Green Waste service – once the jewel in Croydon’s recycling crown – has been chopped. Labour thinks that’s a service mainly valued by Tory voters, so it can go.
And this bias is coming out even in the planning process. Building on protected open land in Conservative-held Shirley. That’s fine. Doing the same in the Labour-marginal of Ashburton, clearly impossible. Over the Leader’s dead body.
It’s got to stop. We are one borough, and we all deserve to get good service and good value from our council.
And the good news is that the Conservative government may be about to make the Leader’s job a little bit easier. On 10th Feb the Secretary of State, Greg Clark, announced that as it is a long time since the underlying assessment of needs was updated, he intends to go back to the drawing board and look at the needs and the resources available to each county and borough.
When this council was run by the Conservatives we repeatedly made the case to the then Labour government that this was overdue, but nothing happened. The Conservative-led governments have since reviewed expenditure in the NHS and education, both of which benefitted Croydon. It is good to see that this Conservative government is to review the local government funding model and that there is a strong likelihood of Croydon benefitting from that.
You might have thought that the leader of the council might bring himself to welcome that, even though it contradicts his partisan and tribal view of the world. Sadly not, not a word.
So this budget is awash with contradictions and misinformation. You can’t tinker with a bit of it and make it acceptable. It stands as a living testimony to the fact that Labour can’t manage and can’t keep its promises, and that’s why the Conservative opposition voted against it.