Cllr Tim Archer, the Conservative candidate for Poplar and Limehouse, on reaction to the Conservative plans for lower tax and better service from Tower Hamlets Council.
At the start of the month I presented the Conservative's alternative budget for Tower Hamlets Council. Our alternative budget was worked up with officers and contained legal and achievable cost savings as well as
important and much needed extra investment in crime reduction and improving the borough. Our budget cut waste without cutting front line services and would have reduced Council tax by 1%.
Labour voted against it (they would, wouldn't they). The LibDems voted against it because they did not like the idea of stopping council staff attending conferences. Respect, who for the third year running were unable to put forward any alternative budget, supported our 1% cut and our plans to scrap East End Life the councils free newspaper, but voted against the budget anyway.
A well-known Labour hack on ConHome tried to claim our budget was illegal because we planned to merge the role of the Chief Executive and the Chief Finance Officer, saving £215K per year. Typical Labour, try and rubbish something without letting the facts get in the way. As Tower Hamlets Officers pointed out, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy actually provide suggested governance arrangements for authorities that do merge the two roles. In Tower Hamlets our Chief Executive's previous role was as our Chief Finance Officer. Therefore I feel we are uniquely placed to achieve this saving.
Tower Hamlets produces a weekly free newspaper, East End Life. Its full colour, runs to some 50 pages and even contains TV listings. What business has a local authority got in producing its own local rag that competes with existing local commercial newspapers; this is especially true when you realise that the Council's freesheet is heavily subsidized by the taxpayer.
The Council claim that despite its £1.6m annual budget, the paper 'only' makes a loss of £128K, due to the £1.4m of 'revenue' the paper makes. Closer inspection of this 'revenue' reveals that 45% of it is made up of the amounts charged to other internal Council departments for advertising in East End Life at over-inflated prices. We were able to secure a deal with a local commercial newspaper to provide 4 full-colour pages in their weekly newspaper for the Council by way of an alternative and save a net £670K.
The final twist in this story is that East End Life claim they are editorially independent. They covered Labour's budget proposals with page after page of glowing write-up. Despite the Conservatives being the official opposition on the Council they have refused to print anything about our alternative proposals!
In the private sector company where I work, we have just asked our contractors to take a 10% pay-cut. They all accepted. Our alternative budget looks to do the same with highly paid contractors working for the Council. Interestingly when Officers put this suggestion to the company that has to contract to provide all contractors to the Council, rather than saying it was illegal or impossible, they responded with interest and agreed it could be done in principle. In previous years we have put forward proposals to cut the £30m that Tower Hamlets spends on agency staff. This year Labour, after voting against these proposals in the past, cut the budget for agency staff in their proposals, so we can expect to see our plans re contractors in future years.
Finally we also proposed to cut our recycling advertising budget by £20K and invest £10K in getting local convenience stores to give out pink recycling sacks. Tower Hamlets has the worst recycling record in the country and at the end of last year embarked on a £190K advertising campaign telling residents to recycle more. Its involved putting huge (and non-recyclable) banners on lamp posts at a cost of 75p for every man, woman and child in the borough. Local residents feel its a patronising campaign and a complete waste of their money. The big problem that residents complain to me about is the fact that they can't get hold of the pink recycling sacks to put their recycling in.
The council will only give out sacks via its own offices which are only open 9-5, no good for people that work. I have asked them to let local convenience stores which are often open until 10pm give them out. Their official response is that because shops have to pay for their waste to be removed, they cannot be trusted to give out the pink sacks because they might use the sacks to dispose of their own rubbish. What a load of rubbish and what a disgrace that the Council don't trust local shopkeepers!
As we know the Home Secretary has stated that we can expect crime to rise even further as the recession bites. So our alternative budget, which identified savings of £3.4m had a strong law and order theme. We found the money for an extra 34 police officers for the borough, an extra two per ward. We would offer a 50% council tax discount to residents who sign-up to become Special Constables and would spend an additional £1m on extra CCTV.
To make sure our borough was clean as well as safe we would invest in an extra two Park Wardens, two extra litter wardens and two extra dog wardens. Shockingly the existing team of 4 Dog wardens did not issue a single fine for dog fouling last year in Tower Hamlets, despite the fact that the pavements are literally littered with dog mess.
After crime the biggest challenge facing our borough is housing – there are 23,000 people on the Housing waiting list, a figure that's going up not down. Shockingly since April 06, of all the intermediate affordable housing that's been built (part-rent/part-buy) almost half of it remains empty and unsold. That's 523 homes that have been built with some form of public subsidy that are empty. Our budget identified £5m that we could offer local social landlords giving them an incentive to turn intermediate housing over to social rent. At the moment RSLs can't sell these unit, but they could get an income stream from renting them. Boris Johnson's office supports this initiative and the Chief Executives of two of the largest social landlords in the borough have supported it too. When the economy improves the social landlords will still own these homes and could look to sell. Who knows the people renting it may be able to afford to buy a stake in it.
So our budget would have cut waste, cut council tax by 1% and invested in crime-reduction, cleaner streets and more housing. A budget that's just right for the current economic disaster that we find ourselves in. On the night though, Labour demonstrating just how out of touch they really are, not only voted against our proposals, but voted through a 53% pay rise for the Labour deputy mayor and backdated the rise to May last year. Its a shame not all the residents of the borough are so equally insulated from this Labour recession.