Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Labour Dilemmas Over Croydon Tories 2014/15 Budget Cuts

Annual Council budget setting in a period when cuts are required by the Central Government is a complex and long-drawn operation. The budget has to be adopted before the end of March so that Council Tax bills can be sent out. The draft budget that is emerging is a combination of cuts, so-called efficiencies and increases in income. Because it is election year the Tories are not increasing Council Tax, and intend to hand back up to £25 to Council tax payers. At the same time they will be increasing Council tenants rents and charges, thereby probably triggering an increase in housing benefits to be paid out. Many of the cuts appear to be aimed at those sections of the community which are most in need of Council services.

While not members of the Cabinet Labour Councillors are entitled to attend and participate the Cabinet meeting on Monday 10 February which will consider the budget. What they said at the last Cabinet meeting is not recorded, which makes the minutes a sham as a record of proceedings.  Only those members of the public who attend to observe the Cabinet meeting will know.

While members of the public will not be allowed to submit questions to the 24 February Council meeting, Labour will get a public chance to critique the budget at it. It will find it difficult to oppose the package.  Although they will call it an election bribe they will not want to seen to try and reverse the £25 payback. If they propose a Council tax increase within Government imposed limits then they will play straight into the Tories’s hands. If the debate in the Council meeting on 27 January is anything to go by the Tories intend as part of their election propaganda to tar Labour as being unsafe to control the budget because it will result in Council Tax increases. Labour will appeal to voters on the basis that they care more than the Tories. But if Labour takes control of the Council in May they will inherit the Tory 2014-15 budget and be faced with further cuts from 2015-16 required by the ConDem Government. So the only way they could attempt to reverse some of the proposed cuts would be to do detailed proposals on alternatives. 

Part 2 – Housing

What Can Labour Do?

It is of course impossible for anyone outside the Council to know what changes could be made. The Tories probably considered a number of options in their discussions with officials, but these will not be in the public domain.

It seems to me that Labour could propose:

·     a drastic reduction in the allowances paid to Councillors coupled with a proposal to reverse a particular cut which would have strong public support. That would look good publicly because they would be seen to be hitting their own pockets as well as those of the Tories.   
·     an increase in income from pursuing Council Tax and rent debts. If this was included in the Budget it would require officials to work harder even if the Tories win the election.

Labour could also closely question the Tories on whether they are maximising the income from Council Tax on empty properties, with a view to proposing an additional income figure from this source, matched by the cancellation of one or more of the expenditure cuts.

Croydon Tories Propose £25 off Council Tax Bills

As part of their election strategy the Croydon Tories are proposing no change to Council Tax for 2014/15 for Croydon and a 1.32% decrease to the Greater London Authority (GLA) precept, on behalf of the GLA, but will offer ‘a council tax efficiency dividend of £25 be made to all households with a liability for 2014/15 of £25 or more on their Council tax account on the 1st April  2014 where the liability is below £25 they will receive an amount equal to that liability.’

Croydon Council Tenants Rents to Rise by 4.9%

Croydon’s CabInet is proposing rent increases for all Council tenants for 2014/15, in line with the National formula for social housing rents with the average rent increases from this national formula being 4.9%. This will be softened by the Council meeting two weeks rent for all Council tenants’ be met by the Council in April 2014 ‘unless their liability for rent is otherwise being met’.  The full cost of services provided to those tenants who receive caretaking, grounds maintenance and bulk refuse collection services are recovered via tenants service charges, this being achieved with a 3.7% increase.  Charges to tenants for garage and parking space rents increase by 4.9%.

Heating charges for Council tenants to remain unchanged. 

Croydon’s Projected Cuts 2014/15

Here are some of the detailed cuts amounting to £18.083m to the 2014/15 budget being considered by the Croydon Cabinet on 10 February. The minute detail to specific Council services is contained in Appendices. Here are some of the items:
Cut from Libraries procurement £341,0000.341
Joint Borough Waste Disposal £1.8m
Reduction in Green and Food waste disposal costs £247,000
Street Lighting £100,000
Green Spaces - retendering of contracts £563.000
Waddon Leisure Centre management costs £252,000
Council Tax - Increased collection and improved debt management £2,500,000
Reassess eligibility of Taxicards and disabled persons freedom pass £20,000
School Travel for children with SEN - Route optimisation and
increase number of pupils able to travel independently
Fostering - increase in number of number of in house carers £452,000
Croydon Care Solutions Ltd £240,000
Lunch clubs/Meals Services contract re-negotiation £30,000
Multi-agency working with primary care, focusing on people identified via risk stratification to delay or reduce their need for social care cases £520,000
Older persons etc anticipated reduction in support costs for individuals. £200,000
Generation of external funding for the Third Sector to enable preventative solutions and reduce the direct cost of care packages £100,000
Voluntary Sector investment old peoples and long term conditions 125,000
Museums and Archives Services £30,000
Grant to London Mozart Players £90,000
Subsidy to School Music Service £50,000
Reduce diversionary activity work for young people £20,000
"Your Croydon" Residents Magazine £93,000
Education Psychology Service £100,000

Council Tax on Empty Property

Councils have individual discretion concerning Council Tax discounts on empty properties. Every empty property is eligible for exemption from Council Tax charging for the first six months that they are unoccupied. After the initial six month period, Councils have the right to decide whether or not a property has grounds to extend the exemption case by case basis, for unforeseen circumstances such as overrun renovation and repair work. After the initial exemption period, some Councils may offer a discount from between 0-50% on Council Tax charging for properties that remain empty. Croydon Council explains its  approach since April last year at How many of the empty properties it has identified are in each of the categories, and in the case of those empty six months or more how many have been given awarded a discount. Can we be sure that all empty properties have been identified?

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