Cllr Greg Smith is Leader of the Conservative Group on Hammersmith and Fulham Council. This is his speech from last night’s Council meeting which debated the Council’s Budget for the coming financial year.
When I responded to last year’s budget, I said this Labour Council is an administration of hypocrisy and broken promises. Sadly, a year on, we have more of the same from this Labour Council and an overall worse situation because of a Labour Mayor of London.
Last year, I was able to say that because of Conservatives in power in City Hall, at least Hammersmith & Fulham residents would still enjoy a Council Tax reduction.
In his last budget as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson cemented his tax cutting record by reducing the Mayor’s share of council tax by 6.4 per cent – a reduction of £19 to £276 for Band D taxpayers.
This year, with a Labour Mayor, our residents, our local Council Tax payers, face the first Council Tax rises since Ken Livingstone was Mayor of London and Tony Blair occupied Downing Street. And just look at what has happened to the Labour Party in that time!
Mayor Khan, to cement a disastrous first year in City Hall, breaking promises on freezing tube fares, house building targets, hopper fares, public transport strikes, protecting the greenbelt and tree planting: is slapping Londoners in the face with a 1.5% Council Tax hike.
Now, in 2014, you claimed in your manifesto that “Hammersmith and Fulham is currently a high tax borough”.
Conservatives recognised that in 2006, after years of Labour Council Tax hikes: doubling Council Tax bills under the Slaughter and Burke administrations; and Ken Livingstone doubling the Mayoral precept in London.
That is why WE, the Conservatives, reduced the burden of Council Tax by 20% over our eight years in administration, and Boris Johnson reduced the Mayoral precept by 11% over his two terms in City Hall.
It was the Conservatives who began the long process of redressing the problem.
So when you said you would cut tax by more than us, some people believed it.
But what we have seen is a pathetic 1% cut two years ago and two further derisory freezes.
Broken promises from Labour.
And what residents see is that while the gap closed during the Conservative years, Council Tax in our borough remains a complete and total rip off when we look across the River to Wandsworth, whose average Band D bills next year will be £307.79 cheaper than in Hammersmith & Fulham.
Let no body be under any illusion: Under Labour rule, Council Tax bills are going up in Hammersmith and Fulham.
So, let’s look at the detail of the budget before us.
Let’s start with fees and charges. Commendable to have frozen some, but utterly bizarre priority setting on others.
- Hire of camera equipment – which is very unlikely to be taken up by local residents, but only outside the borough organisations – frozen, but fees to hire a sports pitch for a local club or kids group UP.
- Neighbourhood warden patrols – again which outside bodies like Housing Associations may buy in frozen, room hire for community groups UP.
Who set these priorities? Think you need another look.
But the big news story in this area continues to be Labour hypocrisy on Penalty Charge Notices.
Let’s remind ourselves: the 2014 Labour manifesto said: “By entrapping motorists, the council makes the fourth-highest profit in the country from traffic fines.”
And on his blog the Leader said official figures, and I quote, “demonstrate the scale of this scam”. What figure – I hear you ask – demonstrated such a scam? Here it is: “Year 2011/12 – Number of Moving Traffic Penalty Charge Notices – 72,837”.
Let’s jump to 2014/15, Labour’s first year in charge: “Number of Moving Traffic Penalty Charge Notices – 96,666”! Up nearly 24,000.
So where are we today? Well there must have been even redder faces than normal in the Labour bunker when 23 days ago the Evening Standard named and shamed Labour run Hammersmith and Fulham as “the most prolific borough at issuing moving traffic penalties” – reporting that H&F now issues 104,575 moving traffic offence fines a year.
Nearly 32,000 more entrapped motorists a year under Labour. That’s a 44 per cent increase.
Total rank hypocrisy from Labour. A total con that they were ever concerned about this issue. Completely exposed for their actions, not just by us, but by the popular press.
Of course Moving Traffic PCNs are far from the only kind of fines that are on the up.
Let’s look at Bus Lane PCNs. In our last year in charge, 2013/14, the total number of Bus Lane PCNs issued was 11,505. The Evening Standard shames you for increasing that to 25,998. 14,500 more bus lane fines a year under Labour. A 126 per cent increase. Staggering by any measure – and would even have been enough to deliver a substantial Council Tax reduction.
Now – as I reminded him last year – and will do so again – the Leader used to have a clear view on responsibility.
In 2014, he said: “If you’ve been issued with a £130 H&F traffic fine in the last few years that is a consequence of a deliberate policy of the Borough’s Conservative councillors.”
Well, whose deliberate policy is it now?
You haven’t changed a single junction; only your tune.
If there’s a scam, it’s the one they pulled on the electors of this borough.
* * *
Which brings me onto parking charges.
Just how much did the party opposite spend on getting so excited by the prospect of clobbering the borough’s diesel drivers with an ill thought through stealth tax that wouldn’t have had the slightest impact on the number of diesel cars or air pollution? Only to scrap it by an urgency decision at the eleventh hour?
They may have done the right thing by scrapping this stealth tax – just like they u-turned on their earlier plans to scrap weekly bin collections. But what this sorry little episode shows us is that this is an administration that doesn’t have a plan. They just jump from vanity project to vanity project. Chasing headlines, but blind to overall outcomes and the impact their decisions have on real people in this borough.
* * *
This leads me neatly onto their other big u-turn: housing stock transfer.
Millions spent on a vain attempt to end all council housing in the borough: that we now understand is to be dropped.
Indeed, it is difficult to pin down just how many millions have been wasted, as when my colleague, the Shadow Cabinet Member for Housing, asked for these numbers, all he got was the following response:
“The information you have requested would not on its own provide an explanation of why and how the money has been spent. The Council believe that it would be more useful for the public to view the expenditure alongside a comprehensive analysis of exactly why money was spent and the benefit various pieces of work had to both the programme and the day-to-day business of the housing department.”
In other words, “no” we won’t tell you.
Likewise, Conservative Councillors have been blocked from seeing the results from the focus groups and consultations conducted at vast taxpayer expense in this field: presumably because – as we have found on the doorstep – council tenants and leaseholders alike are deeply suspicious and opposed to losing democratic control of their landlord and/or freeholder.
This project was never been about trying to do the right thing for council tenants, leaseholders, and taxpayers. Rather it’s the Leader’s attempt to revive the community gateway model that he wanted when he was Cabinet Member for Housing, despite it being 15 years out of date and having failed wherever tried.
All that officer time. All that political capital. All that money. Three years into administration, abandoned.
And what a difference they could have made in that time and money.
Perhaps they could have sorted the crisis in our sheltered housing?
There are some absolutely disgusting and downright dangerous incidents and practices that have taken place in our sheltered housing in recent years. Let me read from an email from a Sheltered Housing resident, which was shared with me yesterday, but sent to two of this Council’s Cabinet Members last June, so far without any reply.
“We have Housing officers doing whatever they want in crisis situations – leaving very sick residents in a distressed state not even calling an ambulance and jumping in their car and leaving the site.
“We have officers offering physical violence and verbal abuse to residents – with no disciplinary procedures in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again – officer just moved to another scheme.
“We have officers on schemes being on duty for the designated times and walking past an activated smoke alarm (approx. 15 feet from their office) for the complete duration of their shift and doing nothing – just let the residents sort it out themselves.
“We have had 5 residents fall and been left unattended from 4 to 11hrs in their flats with no one in attendance which all resulted in their deaths.”
“We have a complaints procedure which is not adhered to by officers – disregarded whenever possible and then cloaked in “Confidentiality” with absolutely no customer satisfaction.”
This resident went on to say they would provide evidence of all these claims should they be required. But no reply. No investigation. No action. Problem ignored and our residents lives endangered.
Instead, you have spent virtually all your time in administration focusing on how to get rid of the boroughs council housing stock third parties. Totally warped priorities. You should hang your heads in shame.
Whilst we are on housing, perhaps you could have also focused on getting genuinely affordable housing built.
This is where we find another broken promise from Labour’s 2014 manifesto: the promise for more affordable housing.
“Those who need affordable homes to rent struggle to get anything suitable in the private or social housing sectors,” it said. Pledging to “provide more new affordable homes for residents to buy or rent.”
So what are the facts?
The total number of affordable housing units approved for year 2013/2014 under the Conservatives was 1,511.
The total number of affordable housing units approved in 2015/2016 under Labour was 165 units.
A complete failure both by comparison with the Conservatives and compared with the current performance of other London boroughs.
You can’t say there is a housing crisis on one hand, and fail to build anything on the other.
* * *
But it is not just in housing that this council is failing – and wasting money – but on a whole range of services.
Let’s deal with the most visible.
On this issue the Leader acts like the former Iraqi Information Minister – dubbed Comical Ali for for his grandiose and grossly unrealistic propaganda broadcasts, extolling the invincibility of the Iraqi Army.
The Leader tells us all is fine. Our streets are cleaner than ever! But for anyone who walks around Hammersmith and Fulham can see, the fly-tips are piling up, the litter is getting worse, detritus is building up and weeds growing through the slabs. Christmas trees were still awaiting collection a clear month after twelfth night; and every autumn it is like the leaf fall genuinely takes them by surprise.
Their own figures even show a 20 per cent increase in fly tipping since Labour took over.
And the bizarre ban on glyphosate that has led to so many weeds is costing local taxpayers £137,000 a year, even though the administrations beloved European Union now tells them – along with regulatory bodies across the globe – that it is perfectly safe.
True to form, when challenged on this subject they try to blame the previous administration.
But let me tell them absolutely clearly; changes to the Serco contract in 2014 were all about putting right what the original contract had got wrong. For example, reclassifying some streets to get more regular sweeps and introducing mechanical sweeping equipment.
Of course – let us not forget – that years after even some of the most radical left wing councils in Britain had conceded that tendered services delivered better quality and value; in 2006 red flag flying Hammersmith & Fulham Labour Council left behind an inefficient and costly direct labour organisation, where bins were emptied after streets were swept.
We fixed that. But as anyone with just one ounce of local government knowledge knows, first tenders rarely produce all the efficiencies and improvements contracts that have been tendered multiple times achieve and will need improvement. Thanks to Labour, Hammersmith & Fulham is way behind the rest of London councils on that front.
But – and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. If they really believe that street cleaning needs more money, rather than robust contract management, let me remind them that they are three years into office. The buck stops with them.
You’ve got the headline of appointing a Tzar, now where’s the real action?
* * *
And so, I move onto crime.
After a decade of sustained crime reduction, it is an extremely sad and disappointing to see crime rising in this borough once more.
Latest Metropolitan Police figures show crime to be up over the last two years, with an additional 1,500 recorded crimes a year compared to 2013/14.
This should deeply worry all of us: and whilst core policing is not a responsibility of local councils, it is something the council must show leadership on.
Now, to be fair to them: we supported the current Council’s decision to carry on the policy Conservatives started of funding a substantial number of additional police officers for the borough.
But when Conservatives signed deals with MOPAC and the Met, we were very clear: every officer funded by Hammersmith & Fulham Council taxpayers must be additional to the core officer numbers for the borough.
Under Mayor Khan, that has stopped.
When Boris Johnson left City Hall, H&F had 510 cops. After eight months of Sadiq Khan an FOI request revealed that number was already down to 481.
In effect this Council is using local money to prop up the central Police cuts by the Labour Mayor.
There is absolutely no need for this, especially as the Government has protected police budgets.
I trust the administration will be now be refusing to fund any additional officers until those MOPAC cuts are reversed and guarantees are given on the additionally of this contract: otherwise every resident will know that this administration are being taken for mugs by their own Mayor.
* * *
Let me now turn to Adult Social Care.
The administration seem very confused on this subject. On one hand they praise themselves for not using the social care precept – but on the other hand claim they don’t have enough money.
They can’t have it both ways.
For the record, I believe they are right not to increase Council Tax. But I also believe they could do so much better for some of our most vulnerable residents with the money they do have.
One of the key differences between Conservatives and Labour politicians is our attitude to money. Labour like to judge themselves by how much they spend. Conservatives focus on the outcomes we want to deliver.
And what better measure can there be than the satisfaction of service users on the care they receive?
So given the administrations self congratulatory tone on social care, I was surprised to learn that for Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s overall satisfaction among social care users is 58.0 per cent, well below the 64.4 per cent national score. 68.9 per cent report that the services they received helped make them feel safe and secure, against 85.4 per cent nationally. And 42.9 per cent feel they have as much social contact as they would like compared to 45.4 per cent nationally.
So Hammersmith & Fulham is significantly behind the rest of the country – on two of the measures behind by quite a significant margin – including the most important judgment of them all: “overall satisfaction”.
And the evidence is also there to see how this Council is failing residents, when neighbouring councils are doing so much better.
Last year there were ten people on an average day, per 100,000 of the population, needlessly stuck in hospital due to Council delays in making alternative arrangements. In Wandsworth the figure was below half of that: 4.4 per 100,000. Why? My colleagues on this side of the chamber have asked, but their questions go without answer – presumably because the administration is ashamed – but I fear it may be because they have no answer.
* * *
Looking at the budget papers, they also appear to be proposing a number of deep cuts to adult social care.
A £344,000 cut in assisting people maximise their independence.
Nearly £600,000 cut to care pathways and extending independence through housing.
A third of a million cut to substance misuse budgets.
For a Council that likes to present themselves as champions of health, it is strange our public health budget is being syphoned off to prop up other council services too: £8,000 on a library, £182,000 on sports development (which I presume is covering costs of the unprofitable swimming pool in White City), and £64,000 on community safety.
Likewise in Children’s Services we see what looks like more deep cuts.
A £500,000 cut to Integrated Family Support Services.
£797,000 cut in the name of “Maximising social care effectiveness” — I thought they were claiming there wasn’t ENOUGH money for social care?
£129,000 cut to work on schools standards.
The Council needs to make efficiencies, but these cuts seem to strike through the heart of frontline services. I put it to the administration that they should be looking to Tri-Borough (or if their ideological prejudice and hatreds are such, sharing services with other boroughs) to save from the back office not the front.
* * *
Now, let’s turn to some good old fashioned Labour waste.
Let’s rattle through some of the outrageous waste we see in this borough, unchallenged by this proposed budget.
- 423 empty council owned garages – that’s 71,910 square feet of empty garage space, equivalent to 144 homes: left empty by this council.
- £300,000 a year on the maintenance costs for empty council buildings.
- Our streets covered in potholes, whilst a whole year’s highways budget was spent on an utterly pointless 20mph limit, in a borough so congested and full of speed bumps 20mph is mostly impossible.
- An increased number of “Policy and Strategy” officers with a salary bill of £286,809 a year.
- £76,000 increase in annual energy bills, when nearby councils are managing to reduce energy costs: ironic given when he was Leader of the Opposition, the now Leader used to pin so much cost cutting hope on turning the lights off in the Town Hall extension.
- A £236,000 increase in the councils printing bill – so much for cutting propaganda! And for all their talk of stopping pictures of politicians, I notice there are no less than five massive posters of the Cabinet Member for Housing displayed on King Street at the moment.
- And the most brazen waste of all: total spending on councillor allowances remains up £13,00 a year with an oversized Cabinet of ten when you pledged to reduce it.
* * *
Then we see their other vanity projects in meltdown.
Anyone writing a text book on incompetence could not find a better case study than this Council’s selective licensing scheme for private landlords.
How embarrassing must it be to use urgency procedures to revoke the designation of 44 streets out of 172 within weeks of issuing the formal legal notices, admitting having used “erroneous data” to choose the streets it covered?
Or perhaps more embarrassing to have included in the first place:
- Two entire streets of Council-owned properties (Charlow Close and Watermeadow Lane) which have been empty for years and are scheduled for demolition.
- A street where all but one of the houses have been demolished, and that one houseis not privately rented at all (Gorleston Street).
- A number of streets of properties owned by Housing Associations, which are not subject to selective licensing (Gwyn Close, Mandela Close, St John’s Close).
- And a street where the only residents are two Catholic priests and a school caretaker (Commonwealth Avenue).
National landlord organisations argue Selective Licensing schemes simply push up rents for private sector tenants, as landlords seek to recover the costs from their tenants. And to make things worse, the Hammersmith license fees are amongst the highest in the country.
The scheme is already in meltdown, and there isn’t a scrap of evidence the remaining streets have high levels of crime this scheme outrageously pre-ports to be caused by rental properties.
It’s just another Labour stealth tax, and a tax that will be paid by private rented sector tenants.
Come on guys, follow your own lead on u-turning on weekly bin collections and the parking permit stealth tax and scrap this one will you?
* * *
And what of Labour’s great hope: commercial revenue?
Well, I am pleased to see that they have moved on from a tea urn in the assembly hall and a car boot sale on Nigel Playfair Avenue.
But not by much. I see from the budget papers the sights are set unambiguously low. They hope to raise a whole five grand by running a flower stall, another 5k from a digital genealogy service for cemetery & bereavement services and they think they might scrape another five grand by selling street cleaning services to private property.
Where they set their sights a bit higher, we return to our theme of hypocrisy.
I appreciate the Cabinet Member for Commercial Revenue wasn’t around under the last administration, but I am sure his colleagues told him that they violently opposed all the advertising hoardings that were installed during that time. And none of them were as inappropriately big or illuminated as the ones they want to blight – for example – Walham Green Court with.
Likewise, they seem to be wanting to privatise our libraries by trying to make nearly £400,000 out of them. Something the party opposite would have jumped up and down with red faces and anger over had any other party attempted it.
Then we have the utter debacle of nationalising the Lyric Square Farmers Market – forcing a popular market out because of their state knows best attitudes.
At best the score card in this area: Overconfident, but naive – must try harder.
* * *
Madam Mayor, this is a sad state of affairs.
Basic council services failing.
Streets getting dirtier.
Crime going up.
Resident satisfaction poor.
Flagship policies abandoned.
Council Tax rising.
Labour are failing our borough.
Conservatives can not support this budget.