Monday 17 March 2014

Budget Report: Hammersmith and Fulham, The High Tax Borough With Some Very Odd Wastefulness Of Tax Payers' Money

Some of H&F's Conservative councillors squirming when
asked about their sickening baby burial tax
aimed at grieving parents
Hammersmith and Fulham is a high tax Borough. It now raises a staggering £64.5 million from around 600 stealth taxes which Conservative councillors have voted to introduce during the last eight years. These have stealthily targeted unsuspecting residents and business at almost every aspect of their lives: from exercising with a personal trainer in a local park, to being elderly and needing meals on wheels or home care, or running a small business.
Conservative councillors looked just a little embarrassed at the annual budget meeting when they were questioned about a £1,692.00 stealth tax they had intended to target at grieving parents who had lost a child. My colleagues and I forced them to drop that distasteful charge but they still voted through an additional 64 brand new stealth taxes and increased 152 of their current stealth taxes by significantly more than inflation.
Motorists have been hit very hard. If you’ve been issued with a £130 H&F traffic fine in the last few years that is a consequence of a deliberate policy of the Borough’s Conservative councillors. They have fixed traffic light times, expanded yellow boxes and used other ruses to increase the money they now raise from traffic fines so that it has risen from just £6 million five years ago to an eye-watering £17.8 million last year. It is indicative how many of these fines have been wrongly issued that the BBC’s Panorama, the RAC and the AA have all accused H&F Council of deliberately entrapping innocent drivers. Despite this furore Conservative councillors still blocked TfL’s offer of help to adjust the traffic system so they no longer did that. These official figures also demonstrate the scale of this scam:
  • Year 2005/06 Number of Moving Traffic Penalty Charge Notices  3,975.00
  • Year 2011/12 Number of Moving Traffic Penalty Charge Notices 72,837.00
So now, despite efforts to keep this secret, officials have confirmed that Hammersmith and Fulham Council raises 26% more revenue more from stealth taxes than it does from the £51 million it brings in from council tax.
In many respects these stealth taxes, made up of new and vastly increased charges and fines, have dwarfed the £22 off the annual council bill in this year’s budget. I am a supporter of cutting council tax. It now cost about £1.5m a year to make a 3% cut and my fellow Labour colleagues and I will continue to cut it. But I also think the Council has a duty to genuinely put money back into residents’ pockets in these austere times, rather than just pretending to.
Conservative councillors squander vast amounts of money telling residents how good H&F Council is. Such is the extent of this £5m wastefulness, they have been accused in Parliament by senior people in their own party of producing “political propaganda on the rates”.
They have wasted other public money on some very strange follies. For example:
  • Conservative councillors voted to gift nearly £200 million of land (which is what it is worth now it has planning permission to build apartments for overseas investors) to a property developer to get just £35 million of new council offices.
  • They voted to build and sell what they deemed luxury “penthouse flats” on top of a Shepherds Bush council estate but lost millions of pounds in public money when they incompetently failed to sell them – even in this market. 
  • They have unnecessarily employed eight of the top ten highest paid council officials in Great Britain and even paid this 'consultant' around £1 million for an unhappy stint in charge of the Borough's council housing.
  • They voted to block attempts to immediately stop a tax avoidance scheme but were forced to go to the Inland Revenue to confess all after a national media outcry and this BBC documentary. The Inland Revenue investigated and fined H&F Council the equivalent of almost 1% of council tax for operating tax systems contrary to UK tax laws. They have since refused to have a proper investigation and have tried tried to brush the whole episode under the carpet.  
  • The Conservative Administration was attacked for "shoddy" financial management by no less a figure than Bob Neill MP, a Conservative local government minister, after it turned out they had squandered up to £12m on unnecessary consultants - some of whom were former employees having been allowed to retire early and come back to work for the council thus getting both their final salary pension and their generous "consultancy" fees.
If you want to get a feel for the cocky culture of wastefulness and personal expectation within the group of Conservative councillors consider how: the Sunday Times attacked the Conservative administration for "splurging" £12,000 of tax payers' money to send Cllr. Mark Loveday (Con) to hang out in Cannes - the millionaires' playground on the French Riviera; they paid Cllr. Harry Phibbs (Con) an extra £6,000 to do a job previously without extra pay and considered part of a councillor's normal duties; they splashed £7,000 on a booze up for a favoured official and had these Conservative councillors all publicly arguing why that was a good thing to have done.

Cllr. Mark Loveday (Con)
enjoyed council tax payer funded
£12,000 trip to Cannes on
the French Riviera
While thinking about expectancy, let's take a look at Conservative councillors "gifts and hospitality register": they have been wined and dined, taken to the Proms, taken to see cricket at Lords, taken to see tennis at Queen Club, taken to extravagant entertainment at the polo and much more - all this paid for by property developers behind the Borough's most controversial schemes. Accepting such generous hospitality, from firms many residents believe are acting against their interests, belies an attitude that is too comfortable with being in power and forgets that they are there to serve residents - not be served some of the finest food and wine in the land.
There’s much more wastefulness - much of it intrinsic to how many council departments operate - which is why my fellow Labour councillors and I set up a cost-cutting unit to look at how to strip it out. Lord Andrew Adonis has also kindly agreed to be on H&F Labour’s review team of the tri-borough initiative should Labour win this May’s council elections – the aim being to make it more efficient and deliver greater savings.
Budgets are just one of the factors council Administration’s have control of. Councils are also the planning authority, play a key role in speaking up for and promoting the Borough and have powers and influence on what happens with local health service provision, local businessesschools, nurseries, parks, homes and housing, etc.
My colleagues and I are in the process of finalising our manifesto after an extensive public consultation. The final costed manifesto will be published at the beginning of the election campaign. We will stay within the current Administration’s spending totals but will set about cutting more waste, taking the Borough in a direction residents want it to go and working with residents to give them new powers and influence on what happens in their neighbourhoods.

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