Kensington and Chelsea Labour – Budget Response 2018

Councillor Robert Atkinson, Labour Group Leader, responding to the Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Group’s Council Budget, said:

Madam Mayor (MM) you will not be surprised to hear that the Labour opposition tonight will not be supporting the preposterous, indeed outrageous, idea that the residents of this borough (including those still suffering grievously from the effects of the Grenfell Fire) be made to pay additional Council Tax to put right the damage and horrors caused by this council.

To increase the Council tax this year will literally add insult to injury.

 

We are pleased instead to propose our own amendments which entail no increase in the Council’s own precept for the coming year and which will unveil a very different set of priorities for the next 4 years.

To be absolutely clear, we do not believe it right  nor necessary to increase the council tax this year and we have at least  4 important reasons not to do so :

Firstly, While it is a legal obligation for this  current ,disgraced and broken council  to set a budget and  a Council Tax of the borough,  there is nevertheless something not right in this arrangement when we all  know that, irrespective of the outcome of the vote on May 3rd, at least  half the people taking this decision tonight will not be here afterwards to take responsibility for the results of tonight’s decisions.

 

Secondly in seeking to justify 2.99 % of the 5.9 increase in Council Tax Cllr Campbell cites   “cost increases and inflationary pressures “But in doing so she fails to take enough account of the cost increases and inflationary pressures that have been faced in many ways by the ordinary residents of this borough as a result of the failed Tory policies of Austerity and cut backs.

Figures produced from the Financial Services Institute and many other credible sources demonstrate that the ordinary people of Britain and of the borough have not had a real increase in their wages or their living standards for more than 8 years and it would be wrong therefore for us to do anything to add to the downward pressures on living standards for our residents.

 

The Leader of the Council may well make fatuous comparisons with the council tax increase costing less than a pint of milk or whatever other insensitive analogy she wishes to make.    But if she were herself living on the breadline or spent more time in tower blocks she might realise what suffering any increase in costs or prices can do to people living on the edge.

Thirdly MM the Leader of the Council is proud to boast that the Council will have this year spent £51 million of its reserves dealing with the terrible consequences of the Grenfell tragedy and now she proposes to take advantage of the government sanction to increase our adult social care precept by 3%.

However in this matter I have got to agree with STORMZY when he called “ Yo- Theresa May where’s the money for Grenfell ? “

MM The very necessary, ongoing costs of Grenfell are going to go on for years and years and we Labour Councillors and candidates simply do not believe that they should be borne by the residents of Kensington and Chelsea alone.  We believe that the future costs of Grenfell should be paid for by National Government.

MM It is for the Judge led enquiry to apportion blame for the causes of the fire (though I do wish that he would get on with it ! )   But it was Theresa May who immediately after the disaster  made a whole series of  big promises to the survivors of Grenfell  and to the wider community and we now  need to hold her and her government to account for those promises.

The truth is that the monies that national government has provided to this council and to other agencies, although carefully trawled and highlighted in the media , ARE in reality slow, grudging and miserly. (For example in his budget Philip Hammond trumpeted an additional £28m for Kensington and Chelsea Council  but in the small print it emerged that this sum was to be spread  over three years. )

This government is very willing to open its mouth but far less willing to open its purse strings . So this is the third reason why we do not believe that the council should raise council tax this year when the government itself should cough up to cover Theresa’s promises.

 

However MM in this budget debate tonight perhaps my Fourth reason for opposing any increase in council tax this year  is the most important.   The Conservative figures before us tonight are themselves full of ambiguities, assumptions and unknowns. This year some imprecision is perhaps understandable ,But even after spending extra money on Grenfell, Children’s Services and rebuilding a customer focussed officer core/ corps. In the next year this council still currently forecasts to have an unallocated “Special Projects Reserve “of £23 ½ million in March 2019.

MM the Labour Group  does believe in prudent reserves. But once again this Conservative Group is reverting to bad habits and plans to build up unjustified levels of reserves in the next year.  My group therefore sees no justification to go to our troubled residents for an extra £5m from their Council Tax when this council is planning to hold £23 million in a Special Projects Reserve and almost a £10 Million in a separate Public Health Reserve.

This outgoing Conservative Group simply cannot stop itself from unnecessarily taking the people’s money and squirrelling it away

In March 2019 this Council still forecasts balances and reserves totalling more than £62 Million. This cannot be justified.

 

So MM the Kensington and Chelsea Labour Party is going to face the electorate of the borough in 8 weeks time with a promise:

  • NOT to raise Council Tax,
  • A promise to spend more money on providing better services across the board (especially on Grenfell , Adult Services ,Childrens Services and the Environment)
  •   A promise to transform this council into one which truly listens to its residents
  • and a promise to plan the future of the borough jointly with those who live here.

MM at this point I could stop and leave it up to my colleagues to detail with the detail of our vision and plans for the future ( And no doubt there are those on the other side who wish I would ) But I would like to take a little longer to remind everyone of the other  failures of the Conservative administration of the borough and to elaborate on some of our plans and ambitions to build a new council.    In doing so I will give credit to those things that this council is now doing correctly and we will most certainly take credit for the role that the Labour Group has played this year in seeking to salvage this council from the catastrophe of its own creation. In this, once again let me be clear, I am talking not just about the fire itself but also about the total failure of this council to take care of its residents both before and  after the fire had taken place.

MM I blame the collapse of this council last June entirely on the hollowing out of its officer core in pursuit of an ideology of privatisation and an obsession with handing over all our service duties to rapacious arm’s length service companies. MM  The Labour Group have been banging away about the failures of privatisation and of arm’s length service companies for almost as long as  has Jeremy Corbyn and the encouraging evidence is that we are both now being listened to by an electorate who have seen through the false claims and the costs of under regulated markets.

I invite everyone here tonight to look back  at the budget speeches that I and colleagues made last year.  A year ago we listed a host of failed and failing contracts entered into by this council in its obsession with outsourcing. And we noted then that not only had these contracts failed to improve services but they had also failed to save money and failed to retain a skilled and committed staff .

But in their conceit the then Council Leadership paid no attention. The costs of that conceit are now plain for all to see.    Or rather it isn’t.

It isn’t because the Mason-Rinker report which demonstrated the amateurism with which this council embarked upon its attempts to draw up contracts with the private sector has never been properly addressed nor debated by this council.

MM the Tory Group are now anxious to draw a veil over failure and costs of the Tri-borough Partnership and the wretched Managed Services Contract which it spawned.  A failed contract which we now know has cost this council at least  £10 million and left our residents and contractors to the tender  mercy of a new untested  British Telecom subsidiary based in Newcastle using a software programme with which British Telecom had no experience .  Surprise , Surprise  as The Tory Cabinet  were warned from the beginning  by Labour Members  this foolish enterprise did not work even after further millions were poured into it. No wonder the Tories have been unwilling to debate it.

Crucially MM  in their obsession with replacing quality council services  and skilled staff with outsourcing  this council got rid of the dedicated and experienced officers who ,had they still been in place, we believe could have responded  effectively to the aftermath of the Grenfell fire.

MM I am confident that at the May Elections the electorate  will remember that not only is the Conservative Party still  the nasty party  but  that this  local administration has also been spectacularly inefficient and wasteful with the tax payers money over many years.

Someday someone will do a serious study further exposing the sheer incompetence of this council in spending money and doing business.

MM at the General Election last year this Council, located less than three miles from Parliament, suffered a national humiliation in being the last local authority in the country to declare its parliamentary election result. MM in the end we got the right result and elected Emma Dent Coad   BUT the entire nation saw that Kensington and Chelsea Council had lost the capacity even to conduct an election count.

And despite claims that lessons have been learned and that this is a changed Council, even now the current leadership team is still seeking  to find private sector businesses able to look after our old and vulnerable residents safely and efficiently and to avoid dumping more of our old people miles away from the borough.

And only this week do we hear that the private Old Peoples Home to be built in Chelsea on the site of the scandalously destroyed Thamesbrook Home will now be a private facility which is so expensive that even the well-heeled oldies of traditional Chelsea will not be able to afford it. So even our old peoples facilities will become yet another part of the borough turned over to an international super elite with no connection or interest in our community. Only the Babushkas of Russian Oligarchs and International Gangsters will be able to take advantage of the new private facilities which literally offers supper menus featuring caviar.

Previously the sheer incompetence of Kensington and Chelsea Tories might almost have had a humorous side if you were not a home- help unable to draw their wages, a retiring teacher unable to calculate their pension. Or a frail elderly person forced out of the borough because the council couldn’t find reliable people to run its care homes and services. So in reality the incompetence of Kensington Council has never been even wryly amusing for those dependent upon borough services or finances.

And of course the incompetence continues and shames this council. Again tonight when, some 9 months after the fire there are still dozens of vulnerable and despairing victims of the fire still languishing in unsuitable and life destroying hotel accommodation. The inability to run an election count was a public humiliation but the failure to rehouse the victims of the fire is a shame from which this administration will never escape and for which the electorate will surely judge you?

PAUSE

To be fair let me acknowledge that after Grenfell there have been some welcome changes . And the Labour Group will offer every support we can to our new chief executive as he puts the council into sharp reverse and seeks to restore an officer corps dedicated to providing service and not just cutting costs.

As part of this we also note and tentatively support the extra £2 million pound fund now  given for ‘Corporate Restructuring’ to  be spent at the sole discretion of the Town Clerk. And we will certainly offer support for Barry’s £2m restructuring fund if from that fund he can find money to restore a minimal staff to service the opposition parties who have already done much to try to improve the democratic restructuring of this council in recent months

And from Barry’s cool two million I personally would like him to find just £3000 to restore a printed paper directory for those of us councillors  without secretaries and offices  so that we can find officers and information when we are not near a computer . Those of us who do most of our council work face to face out in the community still need a paper directory to do our job properly.

MM there will doubtlessly be Tories tonight who will seek to ridicule rinkles in the budgets and budget figures put forward by the Labour Group. It would be far too simple for us to respond that detailed budgets are impossible when the opposition is given no staffing support of our own.

But what I prefer to say is that we believe that the electorate and the gallery here tonight wish to hear more of our vision and plans for the new council and what we want to achieve over four years than to trawl over columns of figures. To do so would be to accept both the tired methodology and the myopic vision of this outgoing council majority.  Therefore tonight my colleagues will provide costs wherever they can and an explanation of where funds will come from if they can be found by taking out  unnecessary  Tory projects or vanity expenditure.

For example a Labour led council will not be spending any more money on Opera Holland Park Opera or Leighton House or, god help us , the South Kensington Station Flower Stall . Our priorities will instead include: ensuring that all tower blocks and public buildings have sprinkler systems, that we retain a viable and relevant FE College in North Kensington and we will support and strengthen Carnival so that it becomes once more the healthy child of the local Afro Caribbean community and not have to pursue external sponsorships with no local connections or sympathies

So tonight our amendments offer both additions and deletions from the proposed Conservative budgets.  We also make no apology for including items which will be only at the pilot or feasibility stage and which will therefore have few immediate or upfront costs.    This council has come to grief previously for not developing or considering projects over time and in the open. Far too frequently projects have been worked up in private, utilising expensive consultants and shown to the public and the opposition only when plans are complete and minds are closed. This is not how we must proceed in the future if there is any hope of rebuilding public confidence in a reformed council.

 

MM in looking both to the future and to our budget plans we can only plan in detail for the things that we know about with certainty. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld we have known knowns, there are also  known  unknowns and  of course there are also unknown knowns.    This MM is precisely why the Labour group are clear that we support the retention of working balances of £10 million pounds.  And we believe in some prudent reserves especially if these are legally required or earmarked for agreed projects.

What we do not believe in are hidden reserves used for political advantage ( such as the former disgraceful practise of the Conservative group to give tax payers rebates of their own money  in an election year ) We  accept that a Labour led Council will probably wish to hold lower reserves and to use more of the council’s money as seed corn for future income generation or to spend money to save money ( such as restoring free swimming for children and old people to avoid the later and greater costs of obesity or elderly ill health or depression .

Another example of spending money to save money is our pledge to protect and restore youth service expenditure to save on later expenditure on crime prevention and combatting vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

MM there are also other alternative sources of finance rather than just tapping up the council tax payer.

The Labour Group has always urged  the council to borrow money for long term projects .And in previously resisting this option this Tory Council has missed out on external borrowing at the cheapest rates in modern times  . Now MM the borough has been forced to borrow large sums of money   including £250 million for future housing needs and for correcting the shameful backlog of repairs that the TMO was allowed to build up without censure from the ruling group of this council. So having finally learned to borrow cheap money I hope that we will continue to do so and are permitted to do so by government. And I will say to Theresa May’s Government, ”if you are not going to help this borough with providing us directly with the extra funds we need  you at least do not stand in our way when we look elsewhere for finance”.

In the recent past this council found millions of pounds for Opera Holland Park and imported pink granite setts to pave Exhibition Road and MM we might like this tradition of special projects to continue but in future let’s do them with a preferential option for those who are not well off and lets do them with people instead of to them.

One example of such an ambitious future project intended to benefit those most in need might well be the creation of a new  Family and Children’s Centre for the those families in the vicinity of Grenfell who have been massively and perhaps  permanently damaged by the events of June 14th .

MM briefly on Capital, I wish to congratulate the council for managing to find the capital funds to rebuild Barlby school and a much needed special school for those with special educational needs.  The labour Group has always support capital expenditure if it is planned in public and secures the support of the communities it is designed to serve and in which facilities are located.   But we will never support so called Regeneration Plans” , arrived at  in secret with external developers and then imposed  on communities against their will .   In fact MM lets ban the discredited term  “Regeneration ”  entirely  and give up our slavish  dependency on ‘Consultants’ not just for Lent but permanently .  a labour led Council will want to build up train and retain our own experts who will know and sympathise with the borough and not just take up consultancy to make a quick buck and move on before their errors and omissions become apparent

MM most of us who have chosen to live in the borough glory in its internationalism and recognise that a major part of its strengths, culturally , socially and especially economically stem from its diversity.

 

But there are growing concerns over the scale of property ownership by overseas based companies, which, without proper transparency, can be a means of concealing tax evasion, money-laundering, theft and terrorist activities.

 

MM recent  research shows that the scale of this ownership, heavily concentrated as it is in Central London  is enormously  damaging to the borough .That’s why we support the Mayor of London’s call to speed up plans for a new public register of the beneficial ownership of overseas companies that own UK property.  In theory the government is committed to producing a register, but tonight we call upon this Council to lobby vociferously its friends in government to get on with it.

 

MM Paradoxically while seeking to limit the damage being done to our communities by rootless , anonymous international finance which uses  properties of the borough as a simple stores for their wealth without even living in the properties on a regular basis.  Simultaneously we need to make it abundantly clear that foreign born nationals will always be welcome in our borough. The Labour Group believes firmly that the Borough and the nation will continue to prosper only if we find ways to stay in the customs union and the single market  and we must  do everything in our power to reverse the damage already caused both economically and in terms of community cohesion by the Brexit vote.

 

This is why we think it important that the borough follows the example of both the borough of Westminster and The Mayor of London in establishing council offices charged with helping our European Community citizens establish their rights during the chaos of the Brexit process and do all we can to retain this important sector of our gloriously diverse population. We have provided for such an office in our budget figures and later tonight we will challenge the Conservative Group to support a resolution promising to set up the office.  Should the Conservative Group fail to do so we hope that our firmly pro EU electorate will draw the appropriate conclusions.

 

In office or in opposition the future Labour Group will support the wider campaign to require National Government to respect and properly finance Local Government.

At the beginning of every budget speech and again this year this council’s leadership has always limply regretted its continued losses of central government finance. And again this year the council’s current leader whispers her regrets that this borough has lost a further £ 6 million of central government finance. MM I promise that a Labour led administration will campaign far more vigorously and more convincingly for fairer settlements for local government and for reformed Council Tax Bands which will require the super-rich in their multi-million pound homes to pay local government taxes as proportionately as possible to the value of their properties.  This MM is not the politics of envy it is simply the politics of equity.

And Theresa May’s Government is helping nobody by failing to grasp the nettle of the escalating care needs of a growing elderly population who need care in their homes and later even more expensive care when we can no longer be taken care of in our homes. MM Theresa May may seek to avoid providing a realistic vision for the care of the frail elderly but we in this Labour Group do not and I urge this Council and this audience to listen particularly carefully to Cllr Healy’s bold plans for future Adult Social Care and Services in the borough. And while the homes that we plan for the elderly will not include caviar they will focus on providing security and dignity in old age and we will take seriously our duty to keep our old people in the borough and not ship them off to die in alien surroundings.

Another area where the failings of Central Government massively impact upon the lives of our residents is the failure to tackle the housing crisis. This MM is a significant failing that even Sir Martin Moore-Bick singled out as a pressing need for Theresa May to take responsibility for. Unfortunately this is yet another challenge that Teresa May has failed to meet but about which our own Cllr Press has clear and fresh ideas . Ideas which include regulating the private rented sector is such a way as good landlords will drive out the fast buck, rogue landlords who exploit of other people’s desperation. And MM to be clear when we talk about the need for more socially rented housing we mean rents which are affordable for people on ordinary incomes.

 

MM I cannot end without thanking those officers who have given us some time to firm up our budget ideas and answer our questions. And in his absence, I must congratulate Mr Buss both for already finding ways to take out £11 million pounds from the Parking Reserve Account when his predecessors all stubbornly insisted that it could not be done. And I also congratulate him also on abolishing many of the secret and unnecessary reserves into which the council sequestered the people’s money

 

MM, at the last Council Meeting I outlined Labour’s Vision for a New Council which would be Humble, Inclusive, Local, Participatory and genuinely Democratic.   I believe that these budget amendments tonight, coupled and coordinated with our ambitious election manifesto start to put that vision into practise. I therefore call upon this Council to abandon its discredited and broken ways of doing things and tonight adopt Labour’s amendments and priorities as the first step towards building a new future for all our residents. (Ends)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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