Susan Hall: Labour councils are badly run and that’s why we won in Harrow

20 May

Susan Hall is the Leader of the Conservative Group on the London Assembly and a councillor for Hatch End Ward in Harrow.

On learning of our victory in Harrow my (non-political) friend called exclaiming ‘What luck!’

My response?

It’s anything but luck.

Instead, a prime example of a community actually taking local politics seriously.

Harrow, previously branded the ‘officer led’ council, has been plagued with Labour in-fighting and rampant money wasting, squandering the opportunity their party had a few years ago. It should not take an administration in shambles and an angry electorate voting to change what has failed them, for local voters to vote for local issues.

This is not to lay the blame at the door of the millions of voters up and down this nation voting for the reasons they decide to. It is to challenge the long history of media discourse around local elections and how they present the locals as primarily a mirror, reflecting and providing insight into national politics.

So much talk around local politics is in relation to whichever dominant political party finds themselves with the top job and most MPs, which does a disservice to the thousands of hard-working councillors tirelessly serving their respective communities. Branding local politics as ‘lesser’ and only in relation to the ‘major league’ of MP Politics creates a top-heavy system, where ‘moving up’ in politics can become a powerful driving ambition. Colouring decision making, rather than working to tackle the job at hand and serve the communities that put them there. Again, a Conservative chosen as the first directly elected Mayor of Croydon is a cause for celebration, but we must find a way to get here without the upheaval and anguish that came before that electoral decision.

So let’s look at Harrow and why we did win; under Labour, services have been dreadful and Harrow taxpayers pay the third highest council tax in London. The unpopular ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhood’ and costly cycle schemes that had to be reversed at further expense are but one example of Labour’s woeful mismanagement.

These have however brought us fabulous new activists who have been crucial to our campaign and hopefully next time round will be standing for us in the Council. New high rises have wrecked the look and feel of our borough and getting any response from council officers is harder than getting Keir Starmer to realise that he is a total hypocrite, thus a change was both required and inevitable.

My friend, not understanding my Starmer gripe, other than what has already made headlines, emphasises the problem. In a saturated world, we need to cut through in new and innovative ways to get our message across to those outside of the political bubble. All too few take any interest in politics and don’t fully understand that national and local politics are very different.

MPs and councillors are responsible for completely different things. Residents in Wandsworth and Westminster pay low Council tax and have great services, they have not lived under a Labour controlled council in years and thus are unaware of the harm done by hideously run councils, I hope for their sake they aren’t about to find out, but I won’t be betting on it.

However, in areas where people see their hard-earned money being wasted by badly run Labour Councils, they understand that things must change. Harrow and Croydon are testament to that. With the scandals over Croydon’s mismanagement of finances and the latest news of two million fraud being investigated by Police in Harrow it’s not a surprise that residents want a change.

Sadiq Khan is another Labour Politician who doesn’t seem to understand that money does not come from the Labour money tree, it’s hard earnt taxpayers’ money. Wasting so much of his £19bn budget and then pleading poverty to the Government he so frequently scorns. Like a child talking back to a parent, then demanding their pocket money, Khan so often bites the hand that feeds him.

One of Khan’s ridiculous ideas of charging motorists for driving in and out of London has worried many in outer London. This would damage businesses and be a massive burden to everyone but particularly those of us in the outer Boroughs so frequently disregarded by this Mayor. The silver lining of current cause and effect electoral results potentially predicts that Khan’s mismanagement of London will be his loss in a few years’ time. Despite the loss of fantastic councillors and flagship Councils I really do not believe that we Conservatives have lost London as some, especially in the media, are happy to say. We have got so many strong activists and dedicated councillors ready to take London politics forward in the years to come.

In Harrow we must thank our wonderful diverse communities, Bob Blackman is a fantastic constituency MP and people trust him, over time this has made a real difference to us electorally. We have new Tamil Councillors who will ingratiate us into their culture and provide essential diversity of thought and perspective in Harrow and indeed further across London. We are the party for the workers and entrepreneurs who do not want their hard-earned money wasted. These days, especially in London, one must be wealthy to afford Labour’s expensive mistakes and woke virtue signalling. I have every confidence that Westminster, Wandsworth, and Barnet will be returned to Conservative control, I just hope we won’t have to spend years repairing the devastation I fear will be wrought by Labour’s poor leadership and unwise spendthrifts.

We must celebrate our wins, but we must also reflect on how we can better serve and persuade voters to make informed decisions. Perhaps through our own dedicated storytelling we can fly the flag for why local politics is not simply a stop along the way, nor a way to protest the direction of the MPs and National Governance, but instead a chance to pick the leaders of each community who make a real and tangible impact on each and every life.

Potholes. Why it is a moral issue.

19 May

The refrain was often heard during the local elections campaign that the relevant issue to vote on was not partygate, but who could best fill the potholes. There was also some outspoken debate about the level of Council Tax, planning controversies, and the frequency of bin collections. But anger over potholes was also pretty high up on the list of voter concerns.

Now the elections are over, councillors have a responsibility to deal with the priorities of those they represent. It has been claimed, based on FOI requests, that Conservative councils fill more potholes than comparable Labour ones. That may well be true.

According to the 2022 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance survey, the number of potholes filled in the last year was 1.7 million – the equivalent of one being filled every 19 seconds. That report comes from the asphalt industry but it uses data from local authorities. It found that the backlog of repairs has increased. Roads are only resurfaced, on average, once every 70 years – though there is quite a bit a variation; in London it’s once a generation, in the rest of England once a lifetime. That is why there is such reliance on the temporary expedient of filling potholes. The proposed solution is to resurface roads much more frequently.

The difficulty is that getting all roads resurfaced would be expensive and take a long time – the report mentions an extra £12 billion needing to be spent over nine years. Highway authorities in England and Wales are responsible for over 205,100 miles of roads.

Councils spend £107 million a year fixing potholes. Plus another £20 million a year in compensation for pothole damage to vehicles. But the cost to motorists is much higher than that £20 million figure. A survey for Kwikfit puts the cost of repairs at £1.25 billion. A third of drivers said their vehicles were damaged by potholes in the past year. Very few have managed to get councils to pick up the bill.

So local authorities are failing to maintain their roads properly – leaving a huge bill for others to pick up.

Nothing much has been done about it. Except in Stoke-on-Trent. The Council there has been making dramatic progress since purchasing a new machine from JCB, called the PotholePro. It fixes a pothole in eight minutes – four times faster than existing methods. It also does it at half the cost. Most importantly the repair is also much more effective. Keep in mind the environmental and economic benefit of minimising the time our roads are closed with noisy and dusty machines.

Councillor Daniel Jellyman, The Council’s Cabinet Member for Infrastructure, Regeneration and Heritage, comments:

“We are delighted with the success of the JCB PotholePro and the speed at which it is maintaining the city’s road network. To have completed almost three years of work in just over four months is astounding and speaks volumes for this solution over traditional methods.”

Stoke is a Conservative council. Labour-run Coventry is following its lead by embracing this new technology. Several others are expected to make announcements soon. So that is welcome. But what about the other 150 councils in England that are highways authorities? Or the 32 councils in Scotland? Or the 22 in Wales? Or the Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland?

Inertia and vested interests come into play. Most councils have a contractor who is paid according to the number of potholes fixed. This creates a perverse incentive not to embrace technology which would result in the repair being permanent rather than a temporary bodge-up. But why wouldn’t the Council insist? It could cancel or renegotiate the contract. The Council’s Director of Highways would have no motive for doing so. He or she would still be paid (usually a six figure salary) for muddling along rather than the extra work involved in changing arrangements.

It really is a scandal. Consider the other costs. At least for motorists, it is usually just financial. But cyclists routinely experience physical injuries due to potholes – including dozens of serious injuries a year and often some deaths. Minor injuries among cyclists are commonplace.

What about the workers? Filling potholes with the methods typically in use is not attractive work. Hand-arm vibration syndrome – also known as “vibration white finger” – is an unpleasant condition caused by working with hand-held vibrating tools. It can be painful and result in numbness making it impossible to carry out simple tasks like doing up buttons. That is often the consequence of toiling away with a pneumatic drill for decades. Big compensation payments are negotiated in extreme cases. But the JCB machine eliminates the risk – the work is done dry and warm from the vehicle’s cab. Why are the trade unions and the Health and Safety Executive not pushing for it?

The Government needs to give local authorities a bit of a nudge on this one. Supposedly there is a legal requirement for councils to obtain best value. The statutory guidance states:

“Best Value authorities are under a general Duty of Best Value to “make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.”  Under the Duty of Best Value, therefore, authorities should consider overall value, including economic, environmental and social value, when reviewing service provision. Authorities also have a statutory duty to consider social value for services above specified procurement thresholds at the pre-procurement stage. Authorities can however apply the concept of social value more widely than this and this Guidance recommends that authorities consider social value for other contracts (for example below the threshold or for good and works) where it is relevant to the subject matter of the contract and deemed to be beneficial to do so.”

Obviously, this obligation is being widely disregarded so far as road maintenance is concerned. How could it be enforced? I would suggest that Baroness Vere, the Roads Minister, should write to the highways authorities stating that she seeks reassurance that the guidance is being adhered to with regard to opportunities provided by new technology. It’s not for her to recommend using a particular product. If a competitor to JCB comes along with something better that is fantastic. But the local authority must be rigorous in showing it is obtaining the best possible value for money. If not, then Baroness Vere should send in hit squads to take over – starting in the areas with the worst results. After all, we put failing schools under new management as “sponsored academies.”

She would probably only need to do this a few times before finding, with Samuel Johnson, that it “concentrated the minds wonderfully” in highways departments elsewhere.

Yet with my sentimental belief in local democracy is it too much to hope that local councillors might also be able to make some progress? They will be well aware from canvassing that the scourge of potholes is not trivial so far as their voters are concerned, but a key political issue. But is it not also a moral issue? We have the gratuitous failure of local authorities to carry out their responsibilities. This failing involves a cost being imposed on others, not just financially, but also of injury and death. It should no longer be shrugged off.

Peter Graham: Labour’s evasive promises to Wandsworth

17 May

Cllr Peter Graham is a councillor for Wandsworth Common Ward on Wandsworth Council.

Wandsworth has a Labour council for the first time in 44 years. After a near miss four years ago, Labour’s victory became odds-on following their recent parliamentary and GLA results. Partygate was merely a late boon to their campaign.

This makes it all the more remarkable that Wandsworth Labour’s manifesto received so little scrutiny. Their promises weren’t just uncosted, but wilfully ambiguous.

I’m not saying this with any bitterness. Labour won by a clear margin. In fact, much of their pitch was about being “the same” and agreeing with us on tax, waste, and the environment.

What matters to residents is what they do next.

Council Tax

Wandsworth Labour’s manifesto states that they “will cut Council Tax”, which seems clear, until one reads, “we’re backing a one per cent cut this year”. That can only refer to the Conservative cut which has already taken place. It would be unlawful for them to back anything else.

Explanations have been limited. When Simon Hogg was asked about his policy, live on air, the new Council Leader got silenced by the Mayor of London. Asked by a resident, their new Group Chair tweeted that the policy was “ minus one per cent which was the same as the Conservative pledge”. Again, Wandsworth Conservatives didn’t pledge to cut tax – we had already done it.

Labour’s equivocation began in February, when they U-turned to support our tax cut for 2022/23. A pinned (and recently deleted) tweet announced that Wandsworth Labour was backing a cut “next year”, which meant the financial year from April 2022. Although their website edited away Labour’s previous call for a tax freeze, it kept its reference to “this year”, meaning the calendar year.

No wonder Sadiq Khan got confused in April, tweeting that Wandsworth Labour would “freeze Council Tax this year & next”. Cllr Hogg retweeted Khan’s claim, before reposting his own tax cut graphic on May 1st, a month after our cut had been implemented:

I think the basic point is this: whether online or in their manifesto, the phrase “will cut” must relate to a future action by Labour in order to be honest. And any voter last week who read about a cut “next year” would rightly take that to mean the Council’s decision in 2023 relating to 2023/24.

So will Wandsworth’s residents get another one per cent net tax reduction? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Rents and energy bills

As Wandsworth Conservatives, we froze council tenants’ rents this April, while freezing their energy bills for a second time. Not many boroughs were able to achieve that.

Labour’s manifesto states: “A rent freeze next year will help tackle the cost of living crisis – and Labour councillors have voted for energy bills to be frozen for tenants too.” Their West Putney candidates (two of whom won), promised an “Energy Bills freeze next year” to boot.

Is this more weasel wording? Labour might be a bit keener on Housing Revenue Account commitments because they don’t compete with their general fund pledges. However, a rent freeze alone costs considerably more than a council tax cut.

They also have another large, uncosted HRA pledge to cover…

A thousand council homes

Labour’s manifesto promises to “build 1,000 new council homes – guaranteed for local people”. This sounds familiar to me because we were already building a thousand homes on council land, with exactly the same guarantee. Labour aren’t planning to lay a single extra brick.

However, under Labour’s online Housing Plan, they will all be “Council rent homes” – not just 442 of the units, as planned. Flipping the remaining shared ownership and private homes won’t come cheap. So how will it be paid for?

I fear they might cancel the much-needed regeneration of the Alton Estate, betraying hundreds of tenants in desperate need of new accommodation. Labour have already talked about a retrospective ballot in their Housing Plan, having flip-flopped throughout the planning phase.

Unless they commit now, which contractor will bother with the expense and hassle of a procurement bid? What starts as a delay could end with nothing.

Magical property levies

On the theme of development, here are some more of Labour’s manifesto pledges:

  • “We will raise £1 million a year in levies on developers to fund Wandsworth housing hardship payments for local families.”
  • “We’ll put more law enforcement officers on the streets, double domestic violence support, install more CCTV and fund more youth workers – paid for by levies on property developers.”

The Council has no power to impose new property levies, so this must relate to CIL or Section 106 payments. That’s achievable, if Labour want less infrastructure and less affordable housing.

Instead, they promise to “set an ambitious housing target that 50 per cent of residential units should be delivered as affordable housing” with “no more backsliding”. They likewise promise to “Prioritise the delivery of social rent homes in all Section 106 agreements”, which are the most expensive type to deliver.

If none of this seems to add up, that’s because it doesn’t.

Spend, spend, spend

The rest of Labour’s shopping list runs for pages. As a flavour of what’s involved, all contractors are to pay the London Living Wage, even if their staff aren’t based in London. Ward pledges included, “Bring mobile & internet access to all across West Putney.”

Most unguardedly, Labour’s manifesto and final doorstep literature promised “mental health services for all who need it”. Not help to access those services, but direct provision.

Reserves and debt

One of my frustrations is that we didn’t do more to secure Wandsworth Council’s reserves. Labour has been left with well over £100 million to splash on projects or plug annual spending deficits, while punting any consequences beyond the next election in 2026.

This wouldn’t be consistent with their pledge to “make the Council’s assets work harder” and “improve” returns, but – along with borrowing – it’s one route to achieving some of their wish list. It would also end decades of careful financial management.

We know from Croydon what can happen next.

It’s only fair to congratulate Wandsworth Labour on their win. They have been gracious on a personal level, for which they deserve credit. As the new Opposition, it’s our job to hold them politely — and relentlessly — to account for their promises to Wandsworth’s residents.

Harry Fone: For Slough Council to blame others for the “cost of living crisis” is laughable

10 May

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Sometimes I have to admire the sheer lack of awareness by councillors. Cllr Christine Hulme is the Cabinet Member for Children’s Services at Slough Council and has put forward a motion demanding a windfall tax on energy companies. She says this is necessary “to ease the cost of living crisis”. Now leaving aside that windfall taxes don’t work, as my colleague Tom Ryan adeptly explains, I have to question what exactly her council has done to reduce the burden on local residents?

After all, this is the same council that will likely have to increase council tax by the maximum amount for many years until it can fill in the enormous financial black hole in its accounts. Furthermore, perhaps if the administration and Hulme hadn’t been so careless with taxpayers’ cash, then residents wouldn’t have suffered a £60 increase in Band D bills this year.

It’s laughable that a council that splashed tens of millions on a Silicon Valley-esque headquarters and is having to sell £600 million of its extravagant property portfolio, thinks it knows how to ease the cost of living crisis.

Welsh council reserves increase during the pandemic

New data from the Welsh government has revealed an increase in council reserves during the pandemic. As of March 2021, total usable reserves across Welsh councils stood at £2.1 billion; an increase of £0.6 billion or nearly 42 per cent on the previous year. The biggest increase in both cash and percentage terms came in Blaenau Gwent where reserves increased by £63.7 million and 297 per cent respectively. The average increase was just shy of 57 per cent.

As I’ve said before and I will say again if the pandemic wasn’t the time to use council tax reserves then when will be? It seems nonsensical that many taxpayers in Wales suffered inflation-busting council tax rises in 2020-21, at a time when they needed all the help they could get to make ends meet. Why did councils choose to plough even more money into their coffers?

The Council Tax rebate is an utter shambles

There have been numerous reports about the delays in handing out the £150 council tax rebate. It makes me question why the government opted for such an ill-thought through approach? As reported in The Telegraph last week, numerous councils failed to make the repayments on time. Swale Council somehow managed to take £150 from taxpayers’ accounts!

I don’t think councils are entirely to blame though and it seems to me the rebate could have applied in a much simpler way. The big problem is that local authorities do not necessarily have direct debit details for eligible residents – many pay by debit/credit card, cheque, or even cash. Where authorities lack the necessary banking information the government has advised them to “make all reasonable efforts to contact the household as early as possible to make them aware of the scheme and invite them to make a claim.”

All well and good, but I suspect that will take a considerable amount of time, effort, and money to send out letters, emails, make calls, and handle the responses. Although the government has allocated £28 million to help administer the payments, did they have to go down this route in the first place?

Wouldn’t it have been better for councils to send out council tax bills at the start of the year minus the rebate to all eligible households? Each local authority already has the necessary data to achieve this and the government could have sent the corresponding funds to cover the rebates. The cynic in me wonders if the system is deliberately complicated in the hope that many won’t claim the rebate and save the Treasury a potential fortune in the process. Am I wrong? Let me know in the comments.

Harry Fone: Nearly 3,000 council officials are on six figure pay packages – including rewards for failure

26 Apr

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The latest edition of the TPA’s Town Hall Rich List 2022 gave a fascinating insight into senior staff remuneration at local authorities during the pandemic. At least 2,921 town hall bosses received in excess of £100,000 in 2020-21, an increase of 119 on the previous year. Jo Negrini, former chief executive of Croydon council, topped the remuneration charts with a jaw-dropping £613,895 – a stunning reward for failure if ever there was one.

Leaving the headline-grabbing stats to one side for a moment though, there are other areas of the research that deserve more attention. At the time of publication, 25 local authorities failed to produce draft or audited accounts. (As an aside, you probably won’t be surprised to know that Slough is still yet to file accounts for the last two financial years.) This is three times higher than our 2021 edition of the Rich List. Covid will likely have a role to play but given this is a statutory responsibility I urge these councils to get their act together. Transparency and accountability matter to taxpayers.

On a more positive note, it’s great to see that authorities are sharing chief executives and senior staff. At least 20 did so in 2020-21 and I hope the number will be even higher next year. The savings to the taxpayer are obvious. Far better to pay one executive £150,000 to take on two roles, than two executives paid £100,000 each for example.

There’s always money for pet projects

A common soundbite from councils is that there is “no more fat left to trim” or their budgets have been “cut to the bone” and council tax has to increase to make up the shortfall. Of course, there have been cuts in central government funding which have increased the pressures on councils. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that as TPA research shows local authorities were still increasing council tax before the age of so-called ‘austerity’.

Similarly, I find it hard to believe some councils’ claims, especially when they manage to find tens of millions of pounds for shiny vanity projects. In 2019, the then leader of Durham County Council, Simon Henig, said:

“It is becoming more and more difficult to deliver the savings we need to make as Government funding cuts continue to bite.” 

Yet in that same year, construction started on a new £50 million council HQ. Latest reports suggest that the newly elected leadership will sell the building to the local university (hopefully for a profit). Leaving the future of the building aside, how can it be that, on the one hand, as stated by Henig, the council was facing “further unprecedented reductions in funding”, yet gave the go-ahead to a costly new office block?

Councils increasingly out of touch with the electorate

With the huge financial challenges facing millions of households at the moment, you would think that councillors would do whatever they can to ease the burden. I was shocked to read that some authorities are still awarding themselves an increase in allowances and refusing to rein in senior staff pay.

In Wolverhampton, members will receive an increase to their basic allowances of 17 per cent. Combined with a jump in special responsibility allowances, the council leader will see his pay packet shoot up by £3,700. Meanwhile, residents have endured a 3.4 per cent increase in council tax, taking a band D bill to £2,074.

So too at Norfork County Council where an increase of 1.75 per cent in allowances looks set to get the go-ahead despite a 3 per cent rise in rates. In Cherwell, Oxfordshire, a remuneration report has suggested aligning an increase in allowances with the cost of living. I wonder how locals feel about that, given they were stung by a 4.7 per cent increase in council tax this year and stagnating wage growth.

In Gateshead, an opposition amendment to freeze senior staff pay was rejected with one councillor claiming it sent the “wrong message at the wrong time”.

With local elections fast approaching, I’d urge candidates to take a stand on this issue. While I’m sure some councillors work very hard for their constituents, it’s disgraceful that allowances are being hiked off the back of tax increases. I suspect attempts to curb remuneration and allowances will prove very popular with the electorate.

Meirion Jenkins: Birmingham Conservatives pledge to scrap the travel tax which charges motorists to drive into the city

25 Apr

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

The battle is well and truly joined for the UK’s second city and largest metropolitan authority in Europe. Birmingham starts with much stronger Conservative representation than any other core city and therefore the best possibility of the Conservatives taking control. We last ran Birmingham up to 2012 in conjunction with the Lib Dems. We need all the help we can get though; anyone willing to help can contact me directly on 07792 731556 or via Twitter and I’ll connect you with one of our many campaigning sessions.

Our campaign and manifesto, which launched this week, has three central themes: clean up the city; fix the roads; and protect green spaces. We will do this whilst keeping council tax low, because the point of being a Conservative is to reduce tax and let people keep and spend their own money, which they will always do far more efficiently than the state.

When campaigning in 2012, Labour promised not to increase council tax. After 10 years of a disastrous Labour administration, we have seen council tax increase by 39 per cent with another maximum increase (without a referendum) this year. I have been an opposition councillor throughout this time and observed a litany of financial and project management failures, many laughable were it not for the abject waste of public money they involve.

Our alternative budget this year would have frozen council tax as opposed to Labour’s maximum increase of 2.99 per cent. Even with this increase, Labour is still not able to present a balanced budget at the time of the election and we believe that, without a change in policy, they will need a further 31 per cent increase to balance the books. We will pledge to increase the number of higher band properties, thereby increasing the council tax collection without the need to increase rates associated with each band. We will bring top quality properties to the city centre, the type of private properties that residents will clamour to purchase. The quality of these properties would not be out of place in Belgravia or 5th Avenue.

Then there are the officer payoffs, with one secret compromise agreement after another and the revolving door of senior officer appointments. With secrecy built into Labour’s DNA, even committees charged with risk scrutiny, such as audit, are denied access to relevant information, notwithstanding that full council even passed a motion saying that there should be no areas off limits to audit committee, which the Labour administration has simply ignored. We even have, and I assure this is true, the Labour chief whip as the chair of audit committee; a hopelessly conflicted position. If elected, we will follow government guidance and bring all payoffs in excess of £100,000 to full council. This way, councillors will take responsibility and be accountable to their electorate.

The Conservative Group on Birmingham City Council is offering a manifesto with a broad range of measures that we know have widespread support amongst the citizenry of Birmingham. First and foremost, we will reverse the disastrous travel tax which charges motorists to drive into the city. This tax has even been opposed by a local Labour MP and of course many local businesses and workers who have no choice but to drive into the city for work. It is especially unpopular with night time workers, who can find themselves having to pay twice if their shift crosses over midnight! In the ultimate example of ‘wooden dollars’, even the Labour administration must charge itself when its non-compliant waste vehicles cross into the zone. The Conservatives have presented proposals to achieve the city’s clean air targets without this damaging tax on hardworking motorists. Our innovative ideas include the introduction of clean air filters at bus stops. Low traffic neighbourhoods and Labour’s crazy plan to close the A38 tunnels will also be scrapped. In order to boost local centres, we will provide free car parking in council owned car parks. We will build new car parks at hospitals so that people can visit their loved ones without having to worry about parking charges – besides, it’s not like they don’t pay enough already for the NHS. We will reverse Labour’s policy of restricting or entirely blocking parking provision with new developments.

Labour fails Birmingham on the basic functions people expect of a council. Waste collection is highly variable, often with whole streets missed for several weeks. There have been more than 500,000 missed bin collections since 2017, although the farcical way Labour measures this means that this figure does not include cases where whole roads, or even whole routes, have been missed but only where an individual resident has reported a missed collection for their one household. It’s no wonder my inbox is populated with complaints every week. If elected, we will seek to redesign the whole service. However, to provide a quick fix for the worst problems, we will instigate automatic reporting where whole roads have been missed and local neighbourhood clean-up crews as a flying squad to deal with waste collection failures.

Our second main theme, and another basic function of the council is fixing potholes. Birmingham gets paid a £1m a week by the government to maintain our roads but the roads of Birmingham are in a dreadful state. The Birmingham roads contract was working fairly well for its first two years when the Tories ran the council. But for the last ten years Labour has made a right mess of the contract, with endless disputes and a court case against the original contractor Amey. If elected, we will return sound management to this contract.

We will establish a business support desk. This will be a dedicated ‘hot line’ to the Leader’s office, co-ordinating assistance for businesses expanding or investing for the first time in Birmingham. In the past, investment has gone elsewhere when the city failed to properly support and respond to requests for assistance from potential investors.

Schools across Birmingham are mixed. There are some very good schools but the best have a distorting effect on property prices and other things as parents desperately try to acquire property within certain catchment areas. We will address this by encouraging applications to set up new free schools, particularly in areas that are currently poorly served. In order to receive a council house in Birmingham, residents will need to satisfy our 5-year residency rule, thereby mandating a local connection.

We will support the government’s initiative to provide face to face GP visits for those that need them. GP by Zoom undoubtedly works for many, and that’s fine, but nothing is ever going to be a substitute for a face-to-face consultation when needed.

Protection of green space is the third main theme of our manifesto. Labour has shown a disregard for green space; under their leadership 50 hectares of green infrastructure have been lost, the equivalent of 93 football pitches. We will adopt a brownfield-first building policy and stop their plans for destroying the city’s valuable park land. One of the most egregious examples and a narrow escape, was that of Dugdale Crescent in my own ward. Labour sought to build houses on a village green. Named after Sir William Dugdale, who fought at Edge Hill in 1642, it really is hard to think of a less appropriate place to build. A magnificent effort by the residents over three plus years saw the land designated as a village green in March this year when I supported the residents at a meeting of the Licensing Committee which unanimously granted the application. This protects against future development.

Once again, we need all the help we can get. Anyone willing to help can contact me directly on 07792 731556 and I’ll connect you with one of our many campaigning sessions.

 

Stephen Greenhalgh: Directly elected mayors? Croydon is showing us the way.

18 Apr

Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities. He is a former Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

The Blair era brought about a lot of constitutional reform – and one of those reforms was the introduction of the directly-elected mayor in London boroughs. Only four of London’s 32 councils adopted this structure: Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, and Tower Hamlets. However, Croydon will now also be governed by this system after an effective grassroots campaign raised a 20,000 signature petition (of which 17,000 were unique and valid). The failing Croydon Labour council did its utmost to stop an election taking place and deliberately misinterpreted the Covid regulations to claim the referendum could not be held until 2022.

In the end a referendum for a directly elected mayor was held last year and every single ward in the Borough voted for change and to move to a Directly Elected Mayor for Croydon. 80 per cent of residents backed this change, despite Croydon Labour’s campaign to stick with the current failed system. In the meantime, the Labour-run council was officially declared bankrupt last year. This Labour council ran up a staggering £1.5 billion debt and is the first London Council to go bust in 20 years. The council’s external auditors highlighted in their damning report that the council had “not responded promptly to previous audit recommendations and concerns…” and that “…numerous opportunities have been missed in recent years to tackle the Council’s financial position.”

The borough received a £120m government bailout last year, the biggest to a UK council, but continued to lurch from crisis to crisis. An allegation of fraud has also been made to police over the £67.5m revamp of Fairfield Halls and an investigation has just been announced, with a firm specialising in ‘investigating issues relating to fraud, corruption, money laundering and embezzlement’ appointed to handle it. It is a sorry record, and it is no wonder that Croydon Council’s Leader, Labour’s Cllr Hamida Alia, has announced she will be standing down in May.

Cllr Jason Perry who leads the Conservative opposition group on the council is the Conservative mayoral candidate. Jason is a proud Croydonian, born and bred, who wants to restore pride in Croydon. He faces seasoned London politician, Val Shawcross, who was the council leader in the 1990s and has spent twenty years at City Hall.

Despite being a former council leader for 6 years, I am a huge advocate of directly elected borough mayors. Here are some of the failings of the current council leader system:

  • Zero accountability. No one knows who is responsible for major decisions, such as raising Council Tax.
  • Buck passing. Council leaders often fail to fix local problems like the emergency closure of Hammersmith Bridge or a knife crime epidemic. Instead, the council leader passes the buck and prefers to play the political blame game when he or she should be taking action.
  • Undemocratic. In Hammersmith & Fulham, the current Leader of the Council is elected by two small groups: the residents of Hammersmith Broadway ward and their own Labour colleagues.

Mayors matter. Mayors can’t hide behind others – the buck always stops with them. A directly-elected Mayor would have a clear mandate to deliver his promises. A directly-elected Mayor would be a visible local champion. A directly-elected Mayor can work with councillors from all parties who want to improve local services for residents – not just those from their own party.

If a directly-elected Mayor doesn’t deliver on his promises and fix problems – like the closure of Hammersmith Bridge to all road vehicles including buses and ambulances for nearly three years – or knife crime – then voters can vote them out after four years. A Mayor has to listen to every single ward – even safe ones – as every vote counts equally. This was the main issue in Croydon as Labour could win the council while ignoring (and in fact deliberately dumping on) much of the borough as all the marginal wards are in Croydon Central (Croydon South is almost all Conservative and Croydon North all Labour).

Finally, we are more likely to win under a Mayoral system than under a ward system as turnout in Conservative wards tends to be higher than in Labour ones. I hope where Croydon has gone, more London boroughs will follow.

Harry Fone: Over half of households face Council Tax bills of over £2,000 – as waste and extravagance continues

5 Apr

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

There was little to joke about on April Fool’s Day as a cacophony of Council Tax rises and cost of living increases hit millions of households. Almost every household across the nation will be suffering another year of Council Tax rises.

Although the average tax rise of £67 (excluding the £150 rebate) in England for 2022-23 wasn’t as severe as last year’s at £81, it still places a greater burden on millions of people trying to make ends meet every month. I’ve pored through the Council Tax data from England, Scotland and Wales to see which areas of the country are feeling the squeeze most.

At a national level, on average, you’re better off living in Scotland when it comes to Council Tax. In England, a typical bill comes in at £1,966 and in Wales, £1,777. Scots will pay just £1,336. Despite Scottish authorities having no cap on increases this year, the largest was a fairly modest four per cent in Falkirk. 22 out of 32 Scottish councils opted for a three per cent rise. Only one, Shetland, froze Council Tax. It also had the lowest bills in Scotland. Residents in Midlothian faced the highest charges at £1,442.

In Wales, there are encouraging signs that the days of double-digit Council Tax rises may be over. The highest percentage increase was recorded in Pembrokeshire at five per cent. The average rise across the country was just 2.2 per cent. Blaenau Gwent topped the charts with the highest Council Tax bill at £2,099 – over £500 higher than neighbouring Caerphilly. Bridgend wins the award for lowest percentage increase in Council Tax at 0.7 per cent. While there’s better news from Wales this year, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the Welsh Government has unleashed new regulations that could see Council Tax bills skyrocketing on second homes.

In England it’s a mixed picture, but purely in terms of Council Tax bills you’re better off living in the capital. On average, London boroughs were £334 cheaper than the rest of the country. In fact, if you omit these authorities from the data, the average Band D bill in England climbs past £2,000. Mapping council tax bills shows that it’s households in the South West, East Midlands, and North East that are enduring some of the biggest Council Tax bills.

This year Rutland knocked Nottingham off the top spot to claim the highest Band D bill in England and indeed Great Britain. Since 2018 Rutland has climbed from seventh spot and bills are now hitting £2,300. In the last five years its average Council Tax rise has been 4.4 per cent. If the trend continues, residents in Rutland will be paying just shy of £3,000 for a Band D bill in 2028. Those in Band H could be forking out close to £6,000 a year in Council Tax.

Mercifully bills aren’t at £3,000 yet but an ever greater number of households are paying in excess of £2,000. For 2022-23, 171 local authorities (55 per cent) have achieved this lamentable state of affairs. Just four years ago, not one single council in England had a Band D bill greater than £2,000. Looking at the bigger picture, since 1993-94, Council Tax has increased by 246 per cent in cash terms.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. As I wrote in my last column, some councils are bucking the trend. I’m pleased to see that in total seven have frozen bills and two managed to cut taxes for residents. Of those that froze bills, six were district councils with Southampton being the only unitary council. Residents of Wandsworth had the second lowest Council Tax in the country and also enjoyed a one per cent cut.

Sadly the cost of living crisis doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. That’s why at the TaxPayers’ Alliance we implore councils to be relentless on eradicating wasteful spending. As we’ve consistently shown, there is plenty more fat left to trim. Councils like Wandsworth, Southampton, and Harlow, are proof that bills don’t always have to go up. A rise of just two per cent next year will see the average Council Tax bill in England soar past £2,000. Authorities up and down the land must do everything possible to spare their residents yet more punishing tax hikes.

John Redwood: Ministers must get a grip on wasteful public spending

21 Mar
Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.
When I go shopping, I do not aim to maximise my spending. My friends and family do not complain if I have spent £70 on goods and not £80. I take a list of what I need. I compare prices and qualities. If I tell anyone what I purchased, I might only mention what I paid if I had come across a bargain or good offer.
           Nor when I go shopping do I ask how much a shop has spent on providing its service, so as to visit the one that has spent the most. I go to shops that combines a good environment and helpful staff with value for money. It would not be a defence for a shop’s poor service or shoddy products if they told me they had nonetheless spent a lot on them. Nor would I pity them if they told me the experience was rubbish because their owner had deprived them of cash to spend on staff and stock.
           So why, then, when the government and Opposition daily hammer at each other over important public services, do they spend most of their time talking about costs?  The NHS must be great, says the government, because we have just spent £20bn more on it. That is not enough, thunders the Opposition: it would be perfect if we spent just a little bit more. Ministers rarely give us any detail over where all this extra money goes, and the Opposition rarely tell us what extra items or staff they would want to hire. It is unusual to hear a normal debate about the quality and range of services, their availability, and how they could be improved. Money is national and political. Service provision is local and outside politics. The detail of why services are poor appears beyond my fellow politicians.
           The government should change this. They should tell us what improvements in service they want to buy, and how they will do so affordably. They may need to incentivise public sector staff to align their interests with the consumer interest. Ministers may need to change the odd Chief Executive (of whom the public sector has so many) to ensure better performance. Senior managers should report openly their successes and failures so as to encourage a grown-up understanding of what needs improving.  As we address the strengthening of our nation’s  defences, we should  not debate how much money we should spend, but what extra capabilities are needed, and how they can be provided economically to the highest standard.
           The danger is that monopoly provision gives too much power to professional providers and not enough to consumers. We have a monopoly nationalised road network. The users pay many times its cost through special taxes on owning and using road vehicles. Highways England and many Council Highways departments seem to delight in closing roads as often as possible. They allow utility companies access to dig them up and put in cables and pipes in ways guaranteed to create many future repetitions of the same frustrating process. Why not place these networks in reinforced conduits for easier access and put more of them away from the centre of main roads? They often keep roads closed at evenings and week-ends when no-one is working on the closed portions. There is no sense that taxpayers have any right to expect the road to be freely available more often. Many Councils regularly change signs, paintings, lanes, junctions and crossings in ways which make motorists’ lives increasingly difficult.
             Last week I travelled to a distant city by train. These newer trains were much more uncomfortable than those they replaced. There was no hot meal service even though I was travelling at meal times. The computer system telling you where your seat was did not work. Yet poor, expensive train services like this are now subsidised. They should think more about how to make themselves attractive to passengers. The collapse of office working post Covid is partly a commuter revolt against train services they regard as poor and costly. Too many commuters have been let down by cancellations and delays, by seat shortages and increasing season ticket prices. The wrong kind of snow, leaves on the line, and the late running of prior trains pall as reasons for delays.
             Public services like health and education that are free at the point of use have plenty of demand which they struggle to meet. Public services like trains and buses with user charges struggle to fill their seats. The public sector is reluctant to close services that lack users and finds it difficult to meet demand where free offers make services very popular. Recent years have brought efforts to make the management of many of these services apolitical by delegating the use and control of resources and staff recruitment and training to expert managers. Both parties have favoured this, thinking they would not be blamed when things went wrong. Instead, Ministers are still blamed for every failing, whilst the management usually escapes criticism and keep their well-paid jobs.
Parliament concentrates on playing party politics, where the government and Opposition squabble over whether too little money was spent. No wonder the services are often costly, poor quality, and insufficiently varied. We want an NHS free at the point of use and free places for all in schools. We need better ways to debate successes and failures, with more attention on how our money is spent. Ministers who provide the cash need more control over how it is spent if they are to be held responsible.

Richard John: Monmouthshire is leading the way in delivering high quality public services

18 Mar

Cllr Richard John is the Leader of Monmouthshire County Council and a councillor for the Mitchel Troy Ward.

In a quiet and largely rural corner of Wales, the flame of a compassionate Conservative vision for Wales burns brightly. At the last local elections in 2017, Monmouthshire went from no overall control to become the only Conservative controlled council in Wales with 25 Conservative members, 10 Labour, five independent and three Liberal Democrats.

We are the lowest funded council in Wales because the Welsh Government’s funding formula fails to adequately recognise the additional costs and challenges associated with delivering services in a large rural area. But we have not let this hold us back. Monmouthshire receives just £1,176 per head of population, yet some neighbouring urban councils receive as much as £1,881 per head. If we were funded at the Welsh average, we would receive an extra £40million every year.

Despite these challenges, we deliver high quality public services at the forefront of innovation. We set up an investment portfolio both as an income stream and a policy lever and despite the uncertainty of the pandemic, it continues to return a surplus which directly funds frontline services. We purchased Newport Leisure Park in Spytty with £21million of borrowing. The rental income minus interest payments has delivered up to £500,000 a year to help fund core services. We’ve also used our investment portfolio to secure benefits for our communities even in areas that aren’t the responsibility of local government. We agreed a £2million investment with broadband provider Broadway, which has enabled them to put in place a fibre rollout plan to 17,000 Monmouthshire properties, which would not otherwise have access to high-speed internet.

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of individuals and councils taking greater responsibility for mental and physical wellbeing. We decided not to transfer our leisure services into a trust, but to reform in-house. While some Welsh councils have struggled with plans to close leisure centres, our approach has been more commercial – to modernise our sites so they’re more financially sustainable. Monmouth was the first leisure centre we refurbished with a brand new gym, dance and spin studios, new kit, a 25m pool with spa facilities, a three storey soft play area with an open plan café and a beauty salon. Until it was forced to close due to the pandemic, the site was returning a small surplus, which is unheard of for council-run leisure centres.

This commercial approach lends itself to a close working relationship with chambers of commerce in our towns. We have a business resilience forum to ensure a close working relationship between our Sara Jones, Deputy Leader and Economy Cabinet Member, her officers and business owners across the county. Through the pandemic, this close working relationship has enabled us to better respond to the challenges facing our high streets. During the pandemic we distributed £41million of Covid grants and got the money to businesses before we even received it ourselves because we recognised that cash flow was a more serious concern for businesses than for us.

In social care, we’ve won awards for the innovative approach we’ve taken to help older people retain their independence through community-based services, which are focussed on the individual rather than an institution. This approach has enabled hundreds of older people to have their care needs met in their own home, where they can continue to live independently. We’re also one of the very few councils in Wales to pay our carers a starting salary £1 above the real living wage.

Our overriding priority has been to offer children and young people the best possible start in life and accordingly, education has been our top budgetary priority for both revenue and capital spend. We’re working with Welsh Government to build new state of the art new schools, having recently completed two new secondary schools in Monmouth and Caldicot and a new school in development in Abergavenny. Although an anglicised part of Wales, we’re ensuring parents have a meaningful choice in education between English and Welsh-medium schools by doubling capacity over the next decade. Our school system is in a strong place as one of the few authorities in Wales with no schools under monitoring by the schools inspectorate Estyn and no schools in a red category under the Welsh Government’s most recent categorisation of schools. We’ve also set up an innovative scheme with the Compass for Life Foundation to mentor primary school pupils from more deprived backgrounds to focus on their dreams and aspirations because there’s nothing as powerful as ambition for the future.

We’re also at the forefront of the green agenda with bold ambitions to improve the connectivity between our towns and villages for cyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists. Working with Welsh Government, this year we’re rolling out more 20mph zones than anywhere else in Wales to improve air quality and road safety. We have one of the highest recycling rates in Wales and we’re decarbonising our fleet with investment in electric and hydrogen vehicles.

Monmouthshire is strategically the best placed county in Wales for growth and our local economy performs second only to Wales’ capital city. Our towns are often considered some of the best places to live in Wales and ranked amongst the best in the UK.  We play a full role in the Cardiff Capital Region and the Western Gateway, keen to secure the economic benefits of partnership working for our residents. We still have challenges of inequality both within and between our communities and we welcome the decision of UK Government to work directly with councils on levelling up and shared prosperity funding to continue to tackle this because nothing is as strong as local knowledge and trusted relationships.

We are doing well, but we are ambitious for more. With continued Conservative leadership, a shared vision and a sense of urgency to deliver for our residents, we can make our county an even better place to live, work and visit.