Monday 29 March 2010

Council Budget Part Two - H&F's Labour Councillors

Whoever wins control of the Council on May 6th will be faced with a need to get the borough’s finances in order and deliver a genuinely more efficient platform of services. I believe it is the Council’s responsibility to always seek to cut waste rather than services.

Having seen the Conservatives latest budget and watched them manage the borough’s finances for almost four years now, it’s clear that new or increased stealth taxes along with cuts in front line services are central to their approach. Just shutting up shop on a service is without doubt an expedient means of saving cash but it’s hard to argue it’s good value when essential services are removed - as happened when they ended home care services for hundreds of elderly, sick and disabled residents and then, while admitting our vulnerable fellow residents would be put at risk, introduced a new £12.40 hourly stealth tax to the remaining recipients.

Cutting services before cutting waste often brings about unforeseen on-cost too. For example, cutting youth services affects employability, good citizenship and community cohesion so it was short termism at its worst for H&F Conservatives to cut the youth budget by over £500,000 and sell off youth centres.

This approach would be alien to some of our most successful companies. Senior managers in organisations like Unilever or Waitrose know full well that if they cut the quality of their products or services or hike up prices then there will be serious consequences to the competitiveness of their organisations.

Senior local government officers have no such pressures and, if politicians allow, will play “Yes Minister” style games to protect their perks and the size of their 'empires'. There needs to be a culture change that jettisons cutting or closing down services, introducing new stealth taxes or attacking the pay, terms and conditions of front line staff as the impulse response of senior officials faced with a need to cut cost. Take H&F Council’s Environment Department: it's ridiculous for it to have been allowed to increase parking revenues by £5million; introduce new recycling charges; add new bulky waste charges; seek out new fines for small retailers and cut the income, terms and conditions of some of our lowest paid staff, such as refuse collectors, instead of sorting out management structures and practices that went out with the Arc.

As an Opposition we do not have access to or been given full disclosure of the details behind the Tory run Council’s budget – as this meeting made clear. But we do have access to many independent experts. So before I set out some of the spending commitments Labour would make, here are some of the cuts we have already identified:
  • We will stop H&F Council wasting £35million on new Town Hall offices and instead take advantage of low-cost office space
  • We will cut the press office, stop advertising and dispose of H&F News – the Council’s propaganda sheet - saving £5million
  • We will cut the number of directors of the Council by at least one post in our first year and reduce it by two over our first term saving £390,000
  • We will put a stop to the exorbitant 16% salary rises awarded to senior Council officials and end the expectancy culture around bonuses and other local government perks
  • We will reduce the number of assistant directors by at least 10% and cut the numbers of senior managers by a significant percentage saving at least £2.1million
  • We will reduce the personnel department by two thirds
  • We will sell high value council owned office space and will not sell off community assets such as youth clubs, schools and housing. We will use those capital receipts to pay off debt and so reduce interest charge payments
  • We will use zero based budgeting as part of a review of all the Council's management and back office structures
  • We will instigate new incentives that measure and reward improved efficiency and better services rather than cutting services, bringing in new stealth taxes or cutting front-line staff’s pay, terms and conditions
We are still only just coming out of the worst global economic slowdown since the great depression. So, my fellow Labour councillors and I have been careful in the spending commitments we are prepared to make. Here are the main ones:
  • We will deliver extra 24/7 police task squads in the 5 wards with the highest crime within our first two years and ensure all 16 wards have this by the end of our first term.
  • We will abolish the Tories abhorrent £12.40 per hour home care charges that target our elderly, sick and disabled fellow residents.
  • We will support and maintain the council tax cut and look for new ways to cut council tax more for those on average and below average incomes.
  • We will cut the Tory stealth taxes - such as the £600 increase in meals on wheels charges.
  • We will bid for funding from government agencies across a range of ring-fenced budget areas such as providing modern youth services that encourage well being, good citizenship, and employability.
In the year I was Deputy Leader of the Council (2005/06), I centralised the 130 strong personnel department with a view to cutting it to around 15; centralised the press office with a view to cutting it to 5 and paid off £12million of debt – which is half of all debt paid off by the Conservative Administration during the last 4 years. The fact that much of the momentum on these efficiencies was lost when the Conservatives won the 2006 elections in indicative of the scope for change.

There is a better way to manage the borough’s finances and have our Council put all residents first in the process. I am determined that H&F Labour will offer a different and better path to that being travelled by H&F Conservatives. If we win the local elections on May 6th, that is precisely the journey our borough will take.

Saturday 27 March 2010

Support The Free Press

The Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle has launched a campaign for Proper Papers Not Propaganda” - attacking H&F News - the Conservative run Council’s tax-payer funded propaganda sheet.

In an editorial that begins on this week’s front page it says “As your local newspaper of 122 years, it's our duty to make you aware that Hammersmith and Fulham Council is spending thousands of pounds of your money producing a biased council publication masquerading as an independent newspaper. Every fortnight the council's H&F news is delivered through your door peddling the views it wants you to read and it's costing you the council taxpayer £174,292 per annum. In short your money is being used by the council to publish its own views dressed up as impartial journalism in a newspaper format.”

H&F Labour have long campaigned against the Council's propaganda paper and pledge to dispose of it in our manifesto. We will also cut council advertising; reduce the press office to a minimum and in doing so save £5million.

The Chronicle is joining a long line of those that are appalled by the tax-payer funded propaganda in our borough.  Last October, Parliamentarians of all parties attacked it at a Select Committee; last August, the Evening Standard published a withering exposé; and this local website has run a long standing campaign. Even the Tax Payers Alliance told H&F’s Conservatives to “hang their heads in shame”.

You can support the Chronicle’s campaign by signing their petition here.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Property Consultant's Boast Of Negotiation Win Against Hammersmith And Fulham Council

Having sat through numerous planning meetings and regularly heard Conservative councillors and their officials say “we have to think of the developer's needs to make a profit”, when explaining why they let residents down and throw away our money, I was a little concerned to read a quote on the website of a leading planning consultant that made reference to their highly profitable negotiations with H&F's Conservative Administration. The London Planning Practice (LPP) boasted that they “achieved significant reductions in S106 contributions” they had been meant to pay Hammersmith and Fulham Council. Property developers are obliged to pay these fees to a local authority to offset the damage to the community caused by the development.

LPP’s claim underlines the view that far from putting residents first H&F’s Conservative Administration has taken every opportunity to help property speculators and prioritised their needs first over those of local residents.

You can read their quote by clicking here. It refers to a development on the New Kings Road, Fulham. At the time of writing this it says “Planning permission achieved for the Commercial Estates Group for a 4 storey extension fronting New King's Road, full height side extensions and an additional floor at roof level to Bedford House and the demolition of Cavendish House. Negotiations with officers resulted in a high density, Grade A office scheme using a contemporary architectural approach. LPP achieved significant reductions in S106 contributions.”

The London Planning Partnership is currently acting for Development Securities on the new NCP buildings proposed for Hammersmith Grove.

Friday 19 March 2010

Incompetent Polo Deal Is Bad Value And Bad For Borough’s Young

Last year, the historic running track (featured in Chariots of Fire) was ripped out of Hurlingham Park. The vandals in this case were H&F Council’s Conservative Administration. Instead they agreed for a private promoter to replace it with a polo field which would be then be used for an exclusive, ticketed, annual, three-day event.

Initially, H&F Conservatives indicated that the cinder running track would be replaced. But, on the 9th March 2010 at the Value for Money Scrutiny Committee Cllr. Paul Bristow (Con), the innovator of this scheme, confirmed that the running track would never be replaced by the Conservatives. He said that if south Fulham’s athletes and young wanted to practice on a cinder running track “they should go to the Linford Christie Stadium [a 45 minute bus ride away in Wormwood Scrubs] instead”. At least he had the grace to look embarrassed.

It gets worse though. It turns out that the reason the specialist running track was removed was because it was built on a hard surface. That surface was unsuitable for an international polo event. The polo company therefore paid £200,000 to have this dug up and replaced with a new lawn that fitted their requirements. However, it would be costly for the company to replace the cinder running track once the polo finished. So the Conservative Administration chose not to make them do so.

H&F Council is paid a measly £25,000 per year for the rent of the park by the polo promoter. This sum in no way makes up for the loss of the park while it is closed to the public prior to, during and after the event or for the loss of the only cinder running track in Fulham. The track would undoubtedly have become an increasingly important facility for our young people as many are expected to be inspired by the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics.

This deal is clearly bad for our young, it’s terrible value for all residents of Hammersmith and Fulham and the negotiation that led to this deal is little short of incompetent. But none of that has stopped H&F Council’s press office going into overdrive and hailing it as a wonderful outcome. Wrongly they claim the Council negotiated £250,000 that will be invested into local sports. That clearly isn’t true. This figure is derived from adding the £25,000 annual fee to the £200,000 the event promoter spent on bringing the field up to international polo standards.

At the scrutiny meeting Cllr. Bristow and his officers tried to tell us that this was all OK because the council also wanted better grass for people to play rugby and football on. But there were suitable pitches already there which were being used for those sports well before this event was negotiated. Indeed, playing polo ruins the fields for those sports. In fact that is exactly what happened two weeks ago when a planned rugby match had to be moved at the last minute because the horses’ hoof marks made the pitch impossible to play on after it had been used for a polo press event.

Readers will recall how H&F Conservatives initially tried to change the license for Ravenscourt Park and Furnival Gardens to allow, loud music, late night events and even wrestling. My Labour colleagues and I have successfully managed to curtail these ambitions over the last three years.

Our parks should have good facilities that are in line with what the majority of residents want and are open and free to all where possible. We should use local parks to promote health and happiness and particularily encourage our young people into worthwhile activities such as athletics and other sports. The Conservatives' incompetence and their overall approach to this exclusive polo event demonstrates why they are unsuitable custodians of our public spaces.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Council Budget Part One - H&F’s Conservative Administration

Did you ever see an episode of the West Wing titled Celestial Navigation? It’s wonderful television. In fact, if it wasn’t for Josh Lyman, the fictional White House Deputy Chief of Staff making an inadvertent admission of a “secret plan to fight inflation” we may never have had the inspiration to learn that H&F Conservatives actually had a “secret budget” prior to the 2006 local elections. Here’s an extract from the exact transcript of H&F Council's Annual Budget Meeting which took place on 22nd February 2006:

Cllr. Stephen Cowan - Labour
“Why would you have a secret budget?”
Cllr. Nicholas Botterill – Conservative
“Why would I have a secret budget…? Well you’ll find out on May 5th” (the day after the 2006 local elections).

And we did… We learnt precisely why H&F Conservatives were so desperate to keep their plans “secret” from the public back then. Over the last four years they:
There’s much more - which regular readers will be familiar with. But, over the years the Conservatives have also given us plenty of insights and we have now learnt there are four aspects to their strategy for managing the borough’s finances. Those are:
  1. Stealth taxes: - new and higher residents’ charges. “Don’t be afraid to increase charges to residents by many times more than inflation… “The market will self correct”, we were told. People are less likely to notice council charges than council tax.
  2. Sell community buildings, demolish and sell off land currently occupied by council houses and rent out parks: - A policy the Tories refer to as “sweating assets”. This has seen schools and community centres sold off; eight estates offered for sale; hundreds of council homes sold instead of re-let and parks closed for exclusive private events.
  3. Cut front line staff’s pay, terms and conditions: – As has happened across a broad range of areas including refuse collectors and caretakers which contrast with record salary hikes won by senior management and sought by Tory councillors.
  4. Continuously cut services: – Cuts have been made in services from home care to dog fouling removal.
Oddly, H&F Conservatives are so nervous about their council tax record that and have openly sought to mislead residents about what has happened with that.

Last year’s budget was agreed by the Tory Administration in February. By May the Administration had confessed that it was in “Crisis”. The Administration has spent the rest of the year trying to catch up. The Conservative leadership were so embarrassed by this that they actually failed to turn up to the appropriate committee to explain what went wrong.

A lot has happened in the last four years with a total of £42million cut from front line services. This year’s budget took place only weeks before the next elections on May 6th. Despite committing to a further £25million of cuts over the next three years it contained very little detailed explanation of the new stealth taxes and reduced services that will be in place to make that happen. Even the senior officials of the Council looked embarrassed when they themselves were unable to explain how these reductions would be delivered.

Being in Administration stops the Conservatives from having a blatantly “secret budget” this time. However, the 2010/11 budget is highly secretive and, if it’s anything like last time, bodes ill for the many residents and businesses in this borough.

Even as we emerge from the worst global recession since 1929 many local families, small retailers and businesses will continue to struggle. There's a better way and the new Council Administration must be capable of putting all residents first. I will shortly publish some of the Labour Group of Councillors' proposals that will seek to do precisely that.