Council Tax to rise again in H&F – due to hike in Mayor’s precept

A year ago I reported that Council Tax bills would be going up in Hammersmith and Fulham for the first time in 11 years. I’m afraid that this year households will see another increase. Some residents tell me they “don’t mind” paying more – but they tend to be those on higher incomes. Council Tax hits the low paid the hardest and for those on tight budgets any increase is unwelcome. Wandsworth and Westminster have much lower bills while maintaining a high standard of local services.

The Council Tax bill is really two bills. The part that goes to Hammersmith and Fulham Council has been frozen again – breaking Labour’s pledge to cut it.

Another chunk of the Council Tax goes to the Mayor of London for the precept. That bill is going up 5.1 per cent. That is the maximum amount that the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is able to push it up without the approval of a referendum. It equates to an increase from £280.02 to £294.22 a year for a Band D household.

It could be worse. Chris Williamson, a Labour Shadow Minister, proposes a 20 per cent increase in Band D Council Tax across the country, a 40 per cent increase for Band E, a 60 per cent increase for Band F, an 80 per cent increase for Band F and 100 per cent rise for Band H. No Council Taxpayers would benefit under his plan – Bands A-C would be frozen. But the proposals for Bands D-H would mean huge rises for most people in Hammersmith and Fulham – they would hit 62,292 or the borough’s 86,793 households.

Of course many of those living in high value properties include pensioners and others who may not be high incomes. It’s not yet adopted as official Labour policy but Williamson is a close ally of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – and so gives an indication of the direction of travel in the Labour Party on this issue.

UPDATE

Good news that Williamson has been sacked as a shadow spokesman. But how much comfort should we take from that? I suspect that his offence was being indiscreet about Labour’s intentions…

Cracked paving stones in Dalling Road

Uneven or wobbly paving stones can be a safety hazard especially for the elderly. Various of you have mentioned that you have noticed a deterioration in standards regarding the pavements locally. Point noted. But it would be very helpful if you could send me any specific details of defective paving stones (ideally with a photograph) and I will pursue.

The example pictured above is from Dalling Road. I have asked the Council’s Highways Department for their comments…

Victory! Thames Water ditches plan for Counters Creek Relief Sewer

Thames Water has abandoned plans for a Counters Creek Relief Sewer. This is excellent news – the proposed scheme would have resulted in considerable noise and pollution of the drilling, the loss of trees. It would also have cost £300 million – which would have been passed on to customers in the form of higher bills. The potential benefits in reducing the risk of basement flooding did not justify the costs.

Back in 2015 I challenged the funding of the project and I also argued that SUDS schemes – sustainable drainage – would provide better value for money.  That is because there would be wider benefits – air quality, aesthetic for instance – in such schemes as greening council estates where concrete is replaced by trees, grass, flowers and shrubs.

There were also the anti flooding devices called FLIPs (flooding local improvement projects) which had been installed at 600 properties – these are mini pumping stations that can help prevent sewage from entering homes through pipes and lavatories. That meant that if we had another storm of the scale of the one on the July 20th 2007 (when there were 1,700 homes flooded) that is another means of mitigating the impact.

Now the following message pings into my email from the Counters Creek Project Director of Thames Water:

Update on Counters Creek Sewer Flooding Alleviation Scheme

Dear Councillor

I am writing to update you on Thames Water’s ongoing work regarding the Counters Creek Sewer Flooding Alleviation Scheme which aims to protect properties in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.

I fully appreciate that some time has passed since our previous update. However, we have been far from idle. We have worked intensively throughout the past year undertaking a full review of our proposals using advanced investigative and network modelling methods to capture the most up-to-date flooding information. What we have done to date

In our previous communications we explained that we were planning to deliver the required level of protection through a package of measures.

These included;

  • fitting a large number of FLIP (note 1) devices to protect individual properties; 
  • installing three Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) schemes as pilot projects in three streets in partnership with both local authorities;
  • building a large strategic sewer to increase capacity in our sewer network.

Over 1,300 FLIP devices have now been installed and the SuDS work is complete.

During 2017 we undertook a detailed review of the requirement for the strategic sewer and have concluded that it is not, at present, required in order to provide the necessary level of protection. I realise that this may be a surprise in view of our earlier work, which included preparing a planning application, and want to explain the reason for the change.

Our review has looked carefully at flood protection provided by the FLIP devices we have installed; at new modelling of flows in our complex local network of sewers following heavy rainfall; and at the potential impacts of further development in the catchment. In particular, we examined the sewer performance during the severe storms in June 2016, including information from additional monitors fitted to the network since the July 2007 storm. On the basis of the flooding caused by the 2007 storm we would have expected to see widespread flooding in June 2016, but this did not happen. This strongly suggests that the FLIP devices, combined with our rigorous programme of sewer cleaning to maintain availability of full capacity, have been more successful than anticipated.

In the circumstances, we intend to continue with our programme of fitting FLIP devices to vulnerable properties but will not progress the strategic sewer in the near future. We have however, worked closely with the Tideway project to ensure that there is sufficient room at their Cremorne Wharf site for the construction of a strategic sewer if this is required in the future, after their work at this location is complete.

What we are doing now

We have already carried out surveys for FLIP devices at additional properties and these will be installed from January 2018. A second phase of installations will follow from April 2018 and further installations will be added sequentially as our plans progress.

We will work closely with both local authorities as these installations take place. We will also continue to monitor the data from three SuDS pilots, developed in partnership with the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea at Mendora Road, Melina Road and Arundel Gardens. The data from these pilots is being gathered and monitored, with assistance from Imperial College, and will be used to inform our plans.

We remain committed to protecting properties which are at risk of flooding in the area and to ensuring that we have a resilient network for the future. We will continue to investigate what future resilience is required for the local sewer network, taking into account population growth, development, urban creep and climate change.”

Of course there remains criticisms. How much money has been wasted on the flawed scheme? Why are the proposals for SUDS schemes not more ambitious? Still today’s announcement is an important victory for common sense.

H&F Council named and shamed for delaying Business Rates relief

In the Budget in March this year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a £300 million relief fund for Business Rates. The reason was that while the rates revaluation was revenue neutral, some firms were being hit by sharp increases. This scheme is to ease some of that burden. Most welcome. Straight away the figures were published as to how much funding was available to each local authority to pass on. All the local authorities had to do was to decide on the details for their discretionary scheme, adopt it and ask central government for the money. But many have been slow to get on with it.

Marcus Jones, the Minister for Local Government, told Parliament in September:

“The Government has been consistently clear that it expects local authorities to make rapid progress in helping business by implementing these relief schemes. Overall, however, despite various examples of good practice, the pace of providing relief to ratepayers has not been acceptable. I have written today to those authorities that have not fully implemented all three schemes asking them to rebill businesses that are set to benefit from relief as soon as possible.”

The Department for Communiities and Local Government publishes a list of “billing authorities that have confirmed to the Department for Communities & Local Government that they have begun rebilling for the three business rates relief schemes announced at spring Budget 2017.” There were 46 eligible councils that had not yet confirmed they had started rebilling for the discretionary scheme.

The list included Hammersmith and Fulham.

The Federation of Small Businesses is understandably exasperated:

It’s now nine months on from the announcement of emergency relief for those most harmed by April’s business rates revaluation. While some councils got on and distributed that help, others have been slower to take action.

“We are now down to the rump of 46 councils who have yet to lift a finger to help their local businesses. Among them are authorities with some of the largest fund allocations, including Hammersmith & Fulham, Nottingham and Northumberland, who have collectively been guaranteed £7.5 million in urgent support for the five years ahead.

“It’s completely unacceptable that small firms in these areas are being put in jeopardy by this lethargic attitude.

“FSB research shows that one in five small business owners were considering closing or selling their firm as a result of bill hikes. The support promised by the hardship fund could make the difference between business life and death for many in these 46 areas this Christmas.

“Before council offices have their parties and close for the festive break, we call on these 46 local councils to do the right thing and help businesses that are struggling this Christmas. Let’s get the 46 down to zero.”

The Council’s Cabinet did finally agree to adopt a scheme for this on November 6th. I suppose it will write to let the Government know in its own sweet time. I asked why it took us so long, given that the neighbouring borough or Kensington and Chelsea had sorted it out months ago. I was told it was because differences in the “decision making process” meant that K&C did not need Cabinet approval. Nonsense, of course. K&C also gave Cabinet approval – the difference was they approved it on April 27th. Hammersmith and Fulham Council, having been asleep at the wheel for eight months, then had the nerve to boast it had “secured” £4 million “to help local businesses”.

Councils will routinely issue virtue signalling proclamations about how they are “open for business” and all the rest of it. Yet many small firms have faced an extra strain on their cash flow due to needless delay in this relief being provided. It makes sense for some flexibility to be allowed – that is in the spirit of localism. But that is no excuse for the long delays seen in some areas. At least the transparency shown by the DCLG means we know who the culprits are.

H&F Council to privatise Council Tax debt collection

A recent report entitled Stop the Knock from the Money Advice Trust. It says that:

“Council tax arrears were passed to bailiffs on 1.38 million occasions in 2016/17, with around 810,000 referrals for parking fines and around 50,000 for Housing Benefit over-payments. There were around 86,000 referrals to bailiffs for unpaid business rates, around 2,200 for commercial rents and more than 22,000 for sundry/other debts.”

From the data in the report we can see the figures for individual local authorities. For instance:

“In 2016/17, London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham instructed bailiffs to collect debts from individuals and businesses on 20,697 occasions.”

That is likely to change from April this year. Hammersmith and Fulham Council will privatise debt collection for Council Tax. The firm that will be chasing the money, 1st Credit, will operate on Financial Conduct Authority standards to public debts – in the same way as when they pursue private sector debts.

Of course the proposal needs to be scrutinised. Will those who owe the Council money be made bankrupt even if the debt is below £5,000? The Council tells me:

“Other, appropriate and proportionate legal remedies remain available.”

So that sounds like a yes.

What about other payments being chased? The Council says that the use of bailiffs is a “medieval practice” as regards to collecting overdue Council Tax. So why continue with the practice for parking fines? There is some PR from the Council about how “ethical” 1st Credit is but in the past they have been criticised by the Office for Fair Trading for being too quick to threaten legal action.

Since April bailiffs have been used for Council Tax arrears alone by Hammersmith and Fulham Council 2,481 times.  If it is “medieval practice” why not stop using it now rather than waiting until 1st Credit are managing it?

Also since April the Council has used bailiffs for Business Rates debts 347 times and for Parking fines 9,247 – and intends to continue doing so. I’m told:

“The Council is committed to radically reducing the use of bailiffs for all Council debt recovery over time.”

It would also be welcome if Hammersmith and Fulham signed up to the Council Tax Protocol, produced by the Citizens Advice/Local Government Association to agree to basic standards of good conduct. The Council told me:

“The Revenue & Benefits service has been going through a service review over the last 6 months and we did not have the resources available to implement all the recommendations. However, this review will be complete in early 2018 and we will be reviewing this once the new teams are up and running.”

But the principle is welcome. The state is not good at debt collection – any more than it is at anything else. The lumbering, inflexible bureaucratic approach is both inefficient at gathering in the money and insensitive as to the human cost of how it is achieved. Often it is the Council that will have to deal with some of those human costs – if a family is made homeless or a child ends up in care. Going to court is a slow and expensive way to proceed. Often there are miscarriages of justice. Far better to intervene earlier – with well trained staff to negotiate payment of the sum owed on an affordable schedule.

We need a proper Council Leaseholders Charter

Council leaseholders often feel they are being treated unfairly by the Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham Council – with good reason.

Concerns are raised of excessive charges, poor service, secrecy, and bureaucratic obstruction.

The average service charges for council leaseholders in Hammersmith and Fulham is £827 a year. Some other London boroughs charge much less: in Hillingdon it is £378.73p; in Harrow it is £357.90.

Examples of outrageous costs for extra work abound. Replacing a lift in our borough costs the Council £125,000 – in Wandsworth it is £51,000. Yet our lifts frequently break down. The Council spent £5.6 million on scaffolding last year – often left up for months with no work being done.

Sometimes council leaseholders are forced to pay for “improvements” that are not wanted – such as replacing sash windows with PVC windows.

This must include a better deal for Council leaseholders with a proper Leaseholders Charter. The Council has offered a very insipid version full of meaningless promises such as to “consult”, “hold meetings”, “carry out satisfaction surveys”, “continue to develop the knowledge of our housing staff”and “ensure we charge leaseholder a reasonable cost for major works undertaken”.

We real Council leaseholders charter would include the following:

1. We will reduce leaseholder charges each year and ensure they are below the London average by 2022.

2. “Public works” costs, such as upkeep of footpaths and play areas on estates which are generally used by the public, will be charged to the General Fund and not to the Housing Revenue Account. This greater fairness will help cut service charges and improve maintenance.

2. At present it is difficult or impossible for leaseholders to check their bills are correct. We will simplify the charges and provide greater transparency. Council leaseholders will be granted full estimated costings in the “Section 125 notices” – rather than just a total figure and a vague reference to what the work is for.

3. When leaseholders own two thirds or more of the flats in a block they have a legal right to buy the freehold. We will use our discretion to lower this threshold for council properties and allow leaseholders the chance to buy the freehold in council properties where they own at least half of the flats.

4. Often those who undertake shared ownership get charged 100 per cent of the leaseholder charges. That is iniquitous. We would ensure they are only charged the proportionate sum.

5. Equal treatment. Council leaseholders must no longer be treated as second class citizens compared to council tenants. For example with the Council’s ill-judged stock transfer proposal they would have been legally obliged to give tenants a vote on the plan – but refused to guarantee this for leaseholders.

6. We will appoint an independent ombudsman to address leaseholder complaints when they are not resolved within a specific time period.

7. We will end the absurd excuse of “commercial confidentiality” used by the Council to escape scrutiny over its spending. If council leaseholders can identify areas where the Council is being ripped off they should be thanked – rather than face hostility; which happens under the current administration.

A better deal and a greater say for our leaseholders is in everyone’s interest. Tangible changes are needed to make that a reality – not just bland waffle.

Labour have effectively abandoned the Flyunder scheme

Last month I wrote about how the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan delayed answering a question about his stance on the Flyunder proposal. This scheme would mean a tunnel would replace the Hammersmith Flyover and a stretch of the A4 extending to the Hogarth Roundabout. It would mean huge benefits in terms of transport, the environment, new housing and making the borough a more beautiful place to live in.

The Mayor has finally provided the following response:

“TfL completed a feasibility study for the Hammersmith flyunder in 2015. The scheme looks to address issues of congestion, mitigate against noise and air pollution from traffic, provide space for new housing and make the area more appealing for walking and cycling. The study indicated that it would be technically feasible to build a tunnel to replace the flyover and provide opportunities to regenerate Hammersmith town centre.

“The likely construction and operational costs of the scheme were found to be significant and could not be covered through local sources and from proceeds from associated development in the town centre. As this is primarily a regeneration scheme, it is being considered further by the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham who are developing a Supplementary Planning Document for the town centre.

“While I am supportive in principle of schemes such as the proposed Hammersmith flyunder, any such schemes need to being fully funded by development in the local area. TfL will work closely with the Council, but the scheme has to demonstrate that it can deliver the benefits and meet the key challenges before I can fully support the it.”

Given the vast sums that TfL is prepared to spend on assorted unwanted schemes the refusal to offer any money at all is unreasonable. Not to mention splashing out £100 million to bodge up the Hammersmith Flyover. This is a TfL road and for the current Mayor to show a complete lack of interest is a dismal contrast to his predecessor Boris Johnson.

Val Shawcross, Deputy Mayor for Transport, says the Flyunder idea is “bonkers”.

In any case just shrugging and saying it is up to the Council to come up with a proposal is pretty hopeless unless we get a change of administration in May. Labour promised to back the plan but have failed to make any progress with it at all.