Friday, 26 May 2017

We're Working To Deliver The Best Value Council In The Country

Last Monday was the three-year anniversary of the council elections in which local people voted to give the job of running our borough to my fellow H&F Labour councillors and me. This is the BBC News report from that evening.

People voted for us from across a wide variety of political persuasions. My colleagues and I have always remained grateful to all of them and absolutely determined to make our residents proud.

There's much we've done, which I'll report on over the coming weeks. Here's a report on some of the things we're doing with the borough's finances.

Over the last six months or so, the Mail on Sunday, BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, The Standard, The Sunday Times and a host of other media have all reported that Hammersmith & Fulham’s Labour administration runs the only council in the country to abolish charges for Adult Social Care while being one of the only councils in the UK to freeze council tax this year.

The Daily Politics programme reported that we're the only council in the country to offer our residents better value now than we did twenty years ago.

Our Conservative predecessors had enjoyed a generous government Council Tax Freeze Grant but the Conservative government abolished that two years ago and instead urged us to raise council tax by 7.75%. Despite that, my fellow Labour councillors and I are the only administration in London to cut council tax this electoral term.

Our Conservative predecessors had introduced 600 stealth taxes, but we are the only administration of any political colour to cut 85% of all the Council's charges for our residents.

And while our Conservative predecessors put parking charges up by 25.3% and budgeted to put them up 14.7% immediately after the council elections, we've frozen parking charges for each of the 3 years we've been in office.

This year, we're adding an additional £4.4 million of new funding to the Adult Social Care budget - which is £1.1 million more than that department’s officials asked us for.

We've done this and more at a time of punitive government cuts to our budget.

Most council funding has traditionally come from a central government grant - not from council tax. By the end of the next financial year, the Conservative government will have cut H&F's central government grant by 74% since they and their former Liberal Democrat partners came into office in 2010. That will be a reduction of £83 million for our borough.

So how have we been able to do all of this?

We saw the problems we inherited as opportunities to save money and do things better
We came into office with a critical view that local government was a long way off where it needed to be if our residents were to favourably compare their council with the very best organisations in the world. However, we were surprised to find we had inherited an organisation that was simply not fit for purpose across many areas of its responsibilities.

To be fair, some useful improvements happened under the former Conservative administration and there were areas of the council's work which remain impressive but they had bequeathed us a corporate culture that was dated, wasteful, self-satisfied and had too little regard for our residents. Too often, the approach to complex challenges was amateur. When things went wrong, as they inevitably did, the cultural reflex was often one of blame, denial, ducking responsibility and indifference rather than forensic analysis, fixing the problem, learning and moving on.

All this wasted time and money and all of this was exacerbated by the Byzantine structures of a 'tri-borough' arrangement the Conservatives had agreed with two other councils.

We were immediately confronted with the scale of the changes we needed to make during our first summer in office. The first and worst example of this culture being the new tri- borough Special Educational Needs Transport Service for disabled children which had gone live just over a month before the election. It was horrendously bad and it put the children at risk. Parents, teachers and carers were desperately worried. Fixing that service - which we did - was made so much harder by all of the above.

In fact, the Conservatives had procured some astonishingly costly and disastrous contracts. They had employed some of the highest paid officials in the UK and had too many of them too. There was little effective training and development of the council's employees with too many staff carrying out important work which they did not have all the necessary capabilities for.

And the Conservatives sold billions of pounds of public land to property developers at knock-down prices - with no regard for the fact that on some of that land were the council homes of hundreds of local families.

Meanwhile, Conservative councillors had squandered millions of pounds: adorning our streets with vanity banners hanging from lamp post featuring their super-sized photos; a newspaper; and over half a dozen different self-aggrandizing magazines - all promoting their North Korean style political propaganda.

Fixing this is a work in progress, but we are making significant progress
The world has moved on compared to even ten years ago. People socialise differently and buy products and services differently. The most effective organisations use big data to better predict demand and they re-engineer and contentiously improve services to make them better for their customers. But the Hammersmith & Fulham Council we inherited 3 years ago acted, looked and felt like an organisation from 30 years ago. We set about a programme of change and modernisation.

So far we're making £62.6 million year-on-year savings in the council's revenue account. Those are being made by:
  • Closing down council magazines, removing vanity banners and other politically inspired wastefulness
  • Using big data to better predict demand to make earlier and thus less costly interventions
  • Remodeling services taking advantage of new technology and working practices
  • Proactively raising commercial revenue - even selling our big data service to other councils
  • Better procurement, negotiation and management of contracts
  • Paying off the council's debt
  • Rationalising the number of council offices
  • Cutting senior management and restructuring the council, while retaining and recruiting some of the best people in local government and training and up-skilling our staff so they're empowered to do more.
We've also negotiated a record £219 million from property developers which will benefit the capital account as those schemes come forward in future years. Of that sum, we won £52.25 million more by immediately re-negotiating 7 property deals shortly after the 2014 council election - deals which Conservative councillors had already agreed at much lower sums and closed the book on.

The borough's Conservative opposition
They're not an active group of local elected representatives. As this link shows, Hammersmith & Fulham's Conservative councillors don't do many surgeries for their constituents and simply don't turn up to a staggering amount of council meetings.

Greg Smith
when Deputy
Council Leader
on a
lamp post
vanity banner
It's evident that the Borough's opposition Conservative Party leader, Greg Smith, does not understand rudimentary aspects of council finances. On 25 February 2015 he said:“I find it curious that he boasts of £50 million extra from developers - and we’ll come onto the detail of that later - where he says he’s already saved £24 million and he brought in £50 million: well if he got to find £71 million worth of savings in total, I don’t know what his problem is, he’s already got all the money in!” as you can listen to here.

He was giving the opposition's response at the annual budget meeting and explaining how the opposition thought the borough should meet the £71 million, year-on-year budget gap in the council's revenue account by 2018/19 - and which we had inherited from his administration. Instead however, the opposition leader demonstrated he didn't understand the difference between the revenue account and the capital account or the difference between a single year's revenue savings and a year-on-year savings target that would need to be reached by 2018/19 and again (plus a greater amount) each year thereafter. Going by the cheers of his colleagues it appeared quite a lot of Hammersmith & Fulham's Conservative opposition didn't understand that either.

The following year, the leader of the opposition's budget suggestion of abolishing the meals-on-wheels service (which would not save very much money at all) had him attacked as "clueless" by this website.

On 13 January 2016, the opposition leader attended the Audit Committee as a representative of Riverside Studios. Under questioning from PJ Murphy and Ben Coleman he said he did not recognise Section 106 money as public money despite it being agreed by Parliament as such in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. He then spent quite a long time explaining his philosophical view that he didn’t support the term “public money”.

We're working to give our residents and businesses the best
We want Hammersmith & Fulham to be the best council in the country. Actually, we want it to be comparable to some of the best, most effective organisations anywhere.

Getting public finances right is crucial to that but can only be sustainable if we modernise how the council operates.

We know that the best way to make improvements is to do it with the people using the services. For a council that is the local residents and businesses we serve. That's why we've; set up resident and business led policy commissions which has helped us do more, better and quicker; we introduced a new public policy and accountability process to give residents more influence on what the council does; and we try to work with our residents and businesses rather than have the council do things to them.

We think our borough has a chance at being the best place for business, the best place to live and work and the very best council. Delivering that is what motivates my fellow Labour councillors and me. We remain ever grateful to all of the 22,163 people who voted for us three years ago and gave us the opportunity to do this.

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