Council tax in Greenwich is to be hiked up as the authority looks to establish a new anti-knife crime unit, deal with the impact of Universal Credit and balance stretched budgets.
Greenwich Council’s financial plans have been published ahead of a formal sign-off at a meeting next week.
According to the draft budget, council tax will be upped by 2.99 per cent – the most it can be without a referendum.
Meanwhile, the council is planning a one-off spend of £1.2m to set up a serious youth violence team to combat the borough’s escalating gang problem, to provide support for users of Universal Credit and train people back to work.
Departments will be tasked with finding £2.25m in “efficiency savings” following warnings from the council leader the authority is stretched to the limit.
Council leader Danny Thorpe told residents struggling on Universal Credit yesterday: “We’re trying to do what we can to look after people, but it is proving almost impossible now.
“We have to set our budget this year – under current projections we are something like £14m overspent.
“There are so many pressures in terms of children’s and adult social care. We’ve had to try and find a lot of one-off resources – we had originally set aside £2m to help with anti-poverty for work we are doing around the Fairness Commission, but we’ve had to put that money in to plug the budget.”
Universal Credit damage
Among the residents that Thorpe met yesterday was Barrington, from Woolwich, who suffers from osteoporosis and said he is now living on £24 a month.
He said: “The system is broken. It is a complete disaster. I’ve had one payment from them that was just enough for rent, and to pay me £6 a week to support myself. If I didn’t have family and friends, I wouldn’t be here today.
“The system is designed to take away what we have got. I’ve gone down from £110 on working tax credit, to £6.
“You wouldn’t get anybody in a room who will say Universal Credit has worked unless they’re completely ignorant.”
One grandmother, Jackie, was forced onto benefits when her marriage broke down.
She said she had been told to ask for support from her children, and admitted problems with money and Universal Credit have left her embarrassed, feeling like she has to put on a brave face for her family.
She said: “You’re living on your nerves. I can’t ask my daughter, she has her own life. It’s stressful, I’ve worried so much.”
Jackie said the rollout came in the wake of her ex-husband falling ill and her son being in an accident, and admitted the stress has caused her to have thoughts of self-harm.
“I feel like I am having to explain all my problems. I shouldn’t have to explain what’s happening to me just because I want to sort out my rent. I’ve been told I might have to give my house up, and that would devastate me.
“I put on a brave face for my children and my grandchildren, but I feel embarrassed.”
Thorpe said that Greenwich was at breaking point when it came to funding frontline services.
“We’re trying to do what we can to look after people, but it is proving almost impossible now,” he said.
The council has had over £100m removed from its annual budget since austerity measures began, and Cllr Thorpe said plans to rejig government finances to distribute more to rural areas will have a big impact.
“The big thing now is that the government are out to consult on a change to funding. They’re giving a new weighting to rurality, to shift money away from poor areas and give it to the countryside,” he said.
“Everyone is feeling the pinch, and London is different to the rest of the country. We have different challenges to face and we don’t have the money to deal with it.”
In the budget report – due to be considered by Thorpe and his cabinet next Wednesday – officers say that change would have a big impact on budgets for waste disposal, libraries and homelessness in the years ahead.
‘Services under pressure’
It also says the council tax increase is needed to deliver services under pressure.
The report explains: “A large element of the overspend pressure relates to needs led statutory duties including supporting the most vulnerable, ie, social care and homelessness.
“Additionally, sustained pressures arising from statutory duties relating to services such as waste and environmental health.
“This picture will provide a challenge in the future to services which are designed to promote choice, control and user resilience.”
The total council tax – including the Greater London Authority’s chunk – would be £1,489.55 for a band D home.
The council says £1,400 in government funding has been cut per household -since 2010 – more than the average across the country.
The report claims “changes to the local government funding regime have resulted in recent years in significant turbulence”.
Opposition Conservative leader Matt Hartley said the council was still refusing to “get real” on wasteful spending – such as shelling out £1.3m on printing and distributing its fortnightly freesheet Greenwich Info for the next three years.
He said: “After years of attacking our repeated calls to reduce back office costs, Labour councillors have finally admitted that £2.25 million in waste and inefficiency can be saved without impacting frontline services.
“This is an extraordinary U-turn and shows just how much local taxpayers’ money they have been wasting all these years, despite the financial pressures on the council.
“Even now, however, Labour councillors are refusing to get real on big items of wasteful spending like the £1.3m contracts they just signed for their pointless fortnightly magazine.”
Tom Bull is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. This story combines two of his reports. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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