Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s General Fund debt was £169 million in 2006. It’s now £42.7 million. So under the Conservatives it was reduced by an average of £15.75 million a year. This meant the bill for debt interest fell – which was an important factor in allowing the Council Tax to be cut.
I am pleased that Labour are planning to reduce Council debt further next year. But only £2.7 million. So debt repayment has become a much lower priority.
Yet many council assets are still not delivering value for money.
For example there are valuable paintings which nobody sees as they languish in storage. The Cecil French Bequest is (conservatively) valued at £17.8 million. It includes many fine paintings by Edward Burne-Jones and was given to the Metropolitan Borough of Fulham in 1953. French pleased by assurances from the council that his home The Grange in North End Lane would be preserved (it was demolished in 1958 to make way for the Lytton Estate). Also, of course, the Bequest was made on the expectation of the paintings being displayed in public libraries – not hidden away.
In terms of the prospects of honouring that pledge the increased value of the paintings became something of a curse – the insurance and security costs representing of public display something of a challenge.
So one option would be to sell the collection. That would allow a reduction in debt that would reduce the annual debt interest bill by over a million pounds – around two per cent a year of Council Tax. It would also allow at least some people to see the pictures.
Or the collection could be sold and £10 million spent setting up a Public Art Gallery in the borough – perhaps to include exhibitions from local art students. That might well be something Mr French would have liked. (Rather depending on what is exhibited – he disliked the “modern movement” and so refused to leave anything to the Tate.) Anyway, that would still leave £7.8 million(+) for debt reduction.
Or the art could be leased – there has been some success with this in the past when it was put on loan in Japan. That might be a viable way of securing substantial revenue.
Or the collection could be sold with the condition that it be put on public display for a certain number of days a year. Or some of it could be sold with part of the proceeds used to be the rest of it on permanent exhibition.
I asked about this last night at a meeting of the Community Safety, Environment and Residents Services Policy and Accountability Committee.
Cllr Wesley Harcourt, the Cabinet Member for Environment, Transport and Residents Services, said he was against selling the art as it was our “Crown Jewels.” But then the Crown Jewels are on display in the Tower of London. Not shut away in storage. Cllr Harcourt added that if the paintings were sold they would “be gone forever”. Then so, one would hope, be that chunk of debt.
By the way this was among a large number of queries about the budget that I and my Conservative colleague Cllr Steve Hamilton raised at the committee meeting last night. Scrutinising the budget to hold the administration to account is probably the greatest annual task for these committees. The Committee’s Chairman is Cllr Larry Culhane. He is paid a “Special Responsibility Allowance” of £5,664.70 to chair these committee meetings – of which there are six a year. That pay is on top of his basic allowance of £8,940. Yet at last night’s meeting he did not have a single query on the Council budget – nor did his Labour colleagues Cllr Sharon Holder or Cllr Iain Cassidy.
Instead Cllr Culhane attempted to stop my from asking all my questions. He relented after I pointed out that it was 9pm and there was an hour to go before the “guillotine” for the meeting to finish. But how extraordinary that he collects nearly a thousand pounds a time for a meeting – then he doesn’t provide any proper scrutiny of the administration himself and seeks to silence those who do so.