Brave, foolhardy, necessary, political suicide could all be words to describe the Conservative Mayor Jason Perry’s decision to hit residents with a 15 per cent increase on Council Tax bills.
Croydon’s own version of Thatcher’s poll tax has left outraged residents reeling and protesting they won’t pay.
The levy on residents feels completely unreasonable, unaffordable unbelievable, unfair unjust – just any number of words beginning with un.
But as thousands of angry residents sign a petition urging the government to withdraw its consent to the 15 per cent tax rise – which already feels like a double tax just for living in Croydon – one question remains why when Labour mislaid hundreds of millions of pounds was there not the same Labour hating outrage?
In fact, people ‘actually’ voted back in councillors who were part of the former Labour administration that in a three year period borrowed £545m with no debt management plan.
Labour’s tally of debt included £30million extra spent on children’s services after it failed an Ofsted inspection; the £67million frittered on the Fairfield Halls and the £200million loaned to failed property project Brick by Brick.
And what also riles me is that still no one has been held to account for this financial mismanagement with our money which has impacted on services and residents lives.
Croydon’s debt is the now size of a small country standing at a staggering £1.6 billion and costing £50million to service every year.
And it’s not just the Conservatives looking to mug us off, Labour Mayor of London Sadiq Khan wants his share of the pie and Londoners are anticipating a 9.7 per precept on bills for the Greater London Authority.
Mayor Perry, a Croydonian born and bred, who is on a £81,000 a-year a salary, has never indicated any political ambitions out of the borough. He’s what you call steady. A long standing councillor before he was elected mayor by just 580 vote margin to Labour’s contender Val Shawcross, so you have to question would he be doing this if there were any other choice?
Clearly, he wants the best for his home town and isn’t afraid to make tough calls even if it will make him the most unpopular man in Croydon.
He must have anticipated the huge blowback and knew his announcement would be followed by outrage, petitions and demonstrations. He will still need two thirds of the vote from councillors on the no overall council, to force through his budget – including the tax rise – in March.
But he has plenty of time with three years left in the job to deal with the fall out and turn around what he describes as a ‘hollowed-out’ council reliant on government bail out because of financial failures of the previous administration.
If he doesn’t increase the council tax, he says then the council will have to make a further £20million of cuts this year ‘putting vital service to vulnerable residents at risk’. This would have been on top of the £36million savings that have already been proposed for the coming year’s budget and the unpopular plan to sell of £100million worth of assets like the Cherry Orchard Garden Centre – a day centre for people with autism and learning disabilities.
The council tax increase will he says generate £22million and protect services.
I do object to having to pay an extra £4.50 a week (based on the average property) to prop up a council which has for years been providing a substandard services for residents.
I personally think it would have been a lot more palatable if the increase had been under ten per cent but I accept there will be no gain without pain.
Mayor Perry has already said the council is set to get smaller and will have to do more for less but in a better way. I struggle to see how that is possible given with more it was able to do less in a poorer way.
This is the second year of increases. Last year, the then Labour-run Croydon increased our bills by 2.99 per cent and the London Mayor increased the GLA share by 8.8 per cent.
Former council leader, Labour Councillor Hamida Ali, said at the time the price hike was “one of the most difficult decisions to make” as people face a cost of living crisis but that now seems like a drop in the ocean for those already living on the margins.
The Conservatives are also set to hit the borough’s beleaguered council tenants with a seven per cent rent increase while Labour’s legacy saw it remove Council Tax Support from 20,000 of the poorest households in the borough.
The biggest criticism Mayor Perry is facing is why if he is a Conservative can’t he get a Conservative government to just roll over and keep bailing out Croydon? Why do we the residents have to pay for the sins of politicians?
Perhaps, the answer is that this is the compromise. The first bail out was for £120 million and the council still needs to borrow tens of million more – and that’s even with the council tax increase – just to stand still.
Despite all these cuts and the bail out the council still went bankrupt for the third time. The Conservatives blamed the bankruptcy hat-trick on the budget it inherited for the current financial year from Labour. When the books were ‘opened up’ it revealed a multi-million pound funding shortfall with the income generating budgets described as a ‘fantasy’ with one senior director accused of having “plucked figures from the air”.
Talks with the government had been ongoing from before Christmas but perhaps the failure of Croydon’s £20million levelling up bid, was an indicator that ministers or more likely civil servants – had lost patience with Croydon.
The one glimmer of hope for the future is that when Mayor Perry announced his intention to increase council tax early this week he also said: “… we are in discussion with Government to agree a reduction in this council’s long term debt and in the meantime we hope to agree a new Capitalisation Directive to address the historical financial failures which still sit on the council’s balance sheet.”
One petition against the hike blames the dramatic cuts in funding per person from central government as being the cause of systemic financial problems of Croydon.
We haven’t been privy to historic discussions between the council and government over funding but I don’t recall much in the way of campaigning for a better deal over the past eight years?
Even so it is clear to anyone with half a brain that Croydon needs Inner London status – for at least north Croydon – so it is on a par with boroughs like Lambeth.
All you have to do is compare places like Brixton, Streatham, West Norwood and Herne Hill with Norbury, Thornton Heath, South Norwood and Selhurst to see the funding travesty.
Having lived in South London for almost 30 years including in Wandsworth and Lambeth, Croydon is by far the worst run.
Croydon has been so badly managed and its development set back by at least 20 years. It’s Lambeth in the 90s and Wandsworth in the 70s but with no money or investment to turn it around. It’s not so apparent in the south because it’s not so built up but in the north and parts of central croydon have been neglected beyond belief and this is because of poor political leadership over decades.
In his public statement Mayor Perry, assures residents: “ I remain committed to ensuring that those responsible for Croydon’s financial collapse are held to account for their failure.”
If nothing else if I have to pay 15 per cent more I want accountability and for those professionals and politicians to be punished for ‘systemic mismanagment’.
But the council has still not been able to publish the findings of the Penn Report, an independent report commissioned by Richard Penn in to what went wrong at Croydon. A number of people were named within the report including the former leader Tony Newman and cabinet lead for finance Simon Hall.
Those named were given the option to indicate whether they believe what was recorded in the report is true and accurate but a small number disagreed with the findings, Mayor Perry told a Croydon Communities Consortium meeting recently.
He added that the council is looking for evidence to substantiate the truth via minutes from meetings, emails, and cabinet meetings. The second is the Kroll report, which is a fraud investigation into the Fairfield Halls refurbishment scandal following the second Report in the Public Interest.
Mayor Perry told the CCC: “I would hope when we have got to the end of the process of checking facts and making sure that everything is correct as we think it can be, that we can then hand that information to the police and ask the police to take it forward, potentially go to professional bodies and say we have evidence that your member has misbehaved and ask them to look into their member’s behaviour.”
“I’m very clear with officers that I want people held to account for what has been done to Croydon. It’s not easy to do that. [Proving] misuse of public office is a very high bar, but I think we have evidence to show that there has been abuse of public office, and I’m very much pushing that we get to a point where people are held to account. I know that’s what residents want. That’s what I want. That’s what most people involved at the council want is people held to account for the things that have been done to the borough.”