The recent Report in the Public Interest by the Council’s Auditors sadly confirms what we already knew – that the failing Labour Administration has frittered away the Council Tax payments made by Croydon’s hardworking residents, failed to listen to both financial experts and opposition councillors, left minimal reserves (about a week’s worth of day to day costs) with a reduced workforce to struggle to meet the needs of those who live, visit and work in Croydon.
It didn’t need to be like this. We know that over several years the auditor, Grant Thornton, identified concerns that the Council could not continue to spend and borrow the way it was doing so. Reckless investments and higher spending have not resulted in better outcomes for residents but has depleted reserve levels, vital to being able to weather a ‘rainy day’. You can’t predict what the unexpected events will be in future years, but Councils do know that unexpected events will happen. Unfortunately, now the good people of Croydon will have to get by with fewer services, whilst paying more to repay debts and build the reserves back up.
So how does this impact on residents? At the start of the year the Labour Administration, who knew how bad the Council’s finances were, secretly implemented a recruitment freeze, asking fewer staff to attempt to maintain the same level of service – a difficult task at the best of times and it meant that residents’ emails and telephone calls have gone unanswered. For 6 months it was simply not possible to order a replacement bin if your existing one was lost or damaged, over the summer there were insufficient staff to keep our parks clean and some grass verges were left uncut for so long that a toddler could be lost in them. I received reports from people without internet access being unable to get through by telephone to renew their garden waste collection (which is actually an income earner for the Council) and work to alleviate flooding, due to start in summer 2020, seems to have been pushed further away with no confirmed start date – whilst there aren’t enough staff to reduce flooding in the short term by promptly clearing away the recent leaf fall that blocks drains uphill of the flood areas.
Sadly, staffing levels in the ‘Public Realm’ department, which covers recycling, keeping our streets clean and neighbourhood safety, will not improve. The emergency budget which was voted for by Labour Councillors required a substantial reduction of around 70 staff in this area alone. Residents are concerned the Environmental Response Team (“ERT”) is being disbanded as part of this ‘cost-saving’ at the expense of keeping our public spaces clean and safe. Redundancy costs have not been revealed but taking into account that some of the team have been redeployed within the Council, so therefore not representing a cost saving to the Council, and penalties are payable on the returned lease vehicles used by the team, the saving can only be as high as £150K, or less than 0.01% of the Council’s debt. This team, whose work has been described as a ‘luxury’ that the Council cannot afford, took exceptional pride in their work – doing an excellent job across the Borough from Thornton Heath to Coulsdon. Their work is now being passed to a contractor, which again means there won’t actually be any cost-saving (the whole point of the exercise!) and we’ve lost a really professional team. And it should be remembered that the ERT also provided a free service to a number of departments from Housing Estates to Highways, who are also expected to make cost-savings. The work that the ERT provided is now to be provided by external contractors who will charge Council departments for each and every job. It is absolutely clear that this so-called ‘cost-saving’ is actually going to cost the Council more money across its departments.
It is shocking that this failing Labour Administration has taken such a cavalier attitude to the Council’s finances – and has left all of us with debts and reduced services for years to come. This is an Administration comprising Labour councillors who nodded away at their previous budget proposals, supported the promise of previous cost-savings and expressed outrage when we quite rightly challenged their financial decisions. It is alarming that the Labour Administration who happily created this financial mess, are the same people now deciding how to get us back out of this mess, and their idea of a cost saving is simply to move the cost somewhere else in the same organisation; there is simply no record of Croydon Labour ever demonstrating any financial prudence nor any evidence of an ability to balance the books whilst maintaining services to residents.
Croydon needs and deserves much better.