Regent's Park Councillor Paul Swaddle responded to the proposed Westminster Council budget this evening.
Lord Mayor - Oh dear, where do I start on this budget?
Firstly it's a massive broken promise to the residents of Westminster.
This administration promised no increase in council tax, no small print, no asterisks saying except this bit, yet this budget proposes a 2% increase - that along with the 9.7% additional precept for the Labour Mayor of London will result in an unbearable increase for many of our residents. And this is at a time of a cost of living crisis. That doesn't sound very fair.
As if putting up council tax was not enough of a burden for our residents this labour administration has chosen, yes chosen, to increase rents for our most stretched residents by 7%!
This increase to social housing rent by its very nature only impacts those that are on lower incomes.
That doesn't sound very fair.
What else does this budget do?
Well Lord Mayor, not content with impacting our poorest residents this Labour administration has also chosen to slash the number of key worker homes that this council plans to build, this will impact our teachers, our nurses and midwives, our social workers, the very people that are key to keep this city going.
This squeezed middle will be given no priority in Westminster. This doesn’t sound very fair.
And Lord Mayor if it wasn't bad enough that they are putting up council tax, increasing people's rent by 7%, cutting key worker homes they have decided that their priority is to increase cabinet member allowances by 45% - that definitely doesn't sound fair.
Now Lord Mayor let me turn to some of the detail in this budget.
Or rather Lord Mayor the lack of detail. Despite the massive promises of this administration's manifesto, there is very little change from the budget that I presented a year ago. I'm glad to see that they have accepted so much of the financial prudency that we had implemented in previous years but I fear that voters will be disappointed to see so little of what has been promised in their manifesto in this budget.
Our financial prudence in this and past years has limited their overspending to just under £6 million, and our foresight of forward borrowing £400 million has given them financial flexibility in a difficult economic climate. They are rightly using some reserves to help tackle the cost of living crisis, as we did for the Covid pandemic – this is exactly what reserves are for – spending to meet the exceptional.
However over the two years, this administration is already planning to spend £38 million of reserves and whilst there is an ongoing Cost-of-Living Crisis to deal with, £6 million is going on their pet projects – this should NOT be being funded from reserves, this should be delivered from core spending and budgeted accordingly.
And this is before their puppet master, sorry Neale Coleman, reports on their commission findings – what other expensive policy decisions lie just around the corner – does the Cabinet Member for Finance not know? Or is he like the rest of the cabinet awaiting orders from their unelected leader?
This budget also lacks any significant efficiency improvements.
While in opposition this administration forever told us that we were not finding enough efficiency gains, but where are they in this budget? They simply don't exist. We consistently brought forward efficiency gains to manage council tax levels. This administration seems unable or unwilling to tackle these.
On car parking charges, there is a declining trend in parking in our City, but this administration is predicting a massive increase of over £3.25m in parking income, with a report on how it will achieve this due in the summer.
We believe that this administration has secret plans to hike charges for EV and other low pollution vehicles – I hope that this administration can confirm that this is not the case.
Where has this administration managed to find some savings? Well, they've stripped out nearly £100,000 a year from ward budgets - money that is given directly to important and critical local projects across our city. Ward budgets have helped fund food banks, projects for the young and old, and many other local schemes delivered by volunteers across the City – slashed by £100k.
On the capital programme, this administration claims to be able to manage things within the envelope previously set however they have simply swept nearly 200 million pounds of expenditure under the carpet. The Pimlico district heating system needs to be replaced, we know that and they know that officers know that. When questioned at the Budget Task Group it was agreed that somewhere in the region of 200 million pounds would be the minimum requirement to replace this ageing solution. So how much has been put into the budget? Nothing, not one pound let alone 200 million. This is a massive black hole in this budget.
Also in the capital budget is an increase of £85.7 million on top of the £92.6 million that we put in the budget for temporary accommodation. However, we have significant concerns about the viability of the 338 units that are proposed, particularly given the pledge to buy in Westminster. This current pricing and availability of units in Westminster suggest that this simply won’t be possible.
The capital programme also sees extensive use of community infrastructure levy (CIL), and while that could be seen as laudable, this capital income stream is drying up - there has been a massive collapse in planning fee income with no major developments coming forward - which in turn will lead to a collapse in CIL payments. This administration's policies are putting off developers and there will be no future CIL if this continues.
This administration promised a consultative budget process – it's not happened
This administration promised a zero based budget – it's not happened
And worse this administration promised no Council tax increase – it seems you simply can’t trust Labour pledges.
Lord Mayor, this is not a Fairer budget
7% rent increase for our poorest residents in cost of living crisis
Scrapping key worker homes
Promising not to increase Council tax, then putting it up
And then increase leading their own Cabinet Member allowances by 45%
All unacceptable and why we will not be supporting this budget.