Leaders squabble as Greenwich Council backs 2.99% tax rise

Greenwich Council tax bill
Council tax bills will go up from April

Greenwich Council raised its council tax by 2.99% last night – but the meeting descended into a bad-tempered spat after council leader Danny Thorpe accused Tory leader Matt Hartley wanting “to set up a little army of bailiffs” to target poorer residents.

Overall bills will go up by 4.2% after London mayor Sadiq Khan increased his share of the capital’s council tax takings to fund extra police officers, leaving an average band D bill in Greenwich at £1,489.55.

Greenwich Council tax 2019/20

Despite the increase – every 1% increase in council tax only brings in £800,000 to the borough – continued deep cuts in government funding still means service cuts, with Thorpe warning “we simply don’t have the resources we need”.

Services being cut include the Violent and Organised Crime Unit, which provides £350,000 for police in the borough. This year’s budget contains plans to replace it with a new unit aimed at tackling knife crime. A £200,000 scheme which aims to deal with domestic violence is also being cut.

But Thorpe reacted angrily to a suggestion from Hartley that the council could do more to increase the amount of council tax it collects – Greenwich collects 94.6% of council tax, as opposed to an inner London average of 95.9%, and only 53% of residents pay by direct debit.

“The fact is that our rates are going up, and the audit findings from last year say that overall our collection rates are lower due to the higher rates of deprivation,” Thorpe said.

“He’s missing the point. We do work hard to get that money back, but over a period if time. It sounds to me like that far from being the progressive Conservatives that are masquerading around us tonight [sic], wants to set up a little army of bailiffs to go out enforcing against the poor people, extracting even more money from them.”

‘Don’t you dare’

Hartley looked furious at this point, and later called Thorpe’s speech “deeply, deeply dishonest”. “His smarmy speech illustrates to me that he is not willing to take our constructive suggestion seriously,” he said.

“As for what he said about sending the bailiffs round, it’s instructive, isn’t it, that he failed to mention his broken promise of lifting the lowest-income residents out of council tax altogether.

“He mentioned bailiffs, and he mentioned debt collections – who are they visiting at the moment? Some of [those with] the lowest incomes in our borough.

“Our proposal would stop taht from happening. So don’t you dare use that, Councillor Thorpe.

“Councillor Thorpe is of the view that resorting to personal attacks on people who disagree with him is a sign of strength. I can assure him it is a sign of weakness. Weak judgement, weak character, and weak leadership.”

Asked to close the debate to a chamber hushed into an awkward silence, Thorpe almost whispered: “I think we’ve all heard enough, madam mayor.”

‘Ant and Dec’

The bad feeling was intensified after Hartley and fellow Tory Nigel Fletcher – referred to by Thorpe as “Ant and Dec” – emailed Labour councillors on Wednesday morning with their budget amendment.

Thorpe instructed councillors not to respond – but this instruction got back to Hartley, who mentioned it in his speech. Leaking to the opposition is seen as a grave taboo in the Labour group. Thorpe said that he wanted the discussion on the Tory amendment to be held in public – “bring it on” – but only three people were present in the public gallery; a group from the Green Party who had asked questions on climate change had already left.

The Tories abstained on the budget proposals because, Hartley said, “this administration has accepted the need to make back office savings”. Thorpe said: “The idea that across the road we have council workers wilfully wasting money is an insult.”

Another Tory proposal was to open council events up for sponsorship. Deputy leader David Gardner said this would result in a “looked-after children’s ward ceremony being sponsored by Ladbrokes, or a health and well-being award sponsored by KFC” – but Tory Charlie Davis shouted out that the council has McDonald’s as a sponsor of its business awards.

The Tories also wanted to scrap Greenwich Info and make cuts in the council PR budget. Charlton councillor Linda Perks claimed that the council had to place its statutory notices in the fortnightly freesheet – however, they actually go in the little-seen weekly Greenwich Weekender. She also accused Hartley of being “an agent for the Taxpayers’ Alliance”, the hard-right lobbying group.

Greenwich Council chamber
Only three people were present in the public gallery at the start of the budget debate

A long-standing Tory grievance about council staff being paid to carry out trade union activities got short shrift. Cabinet member Chris Kirby said: “Each year we have this, like a deeply ideological Thatcherite tradition. This is money that allows our staff to have a seat at the table when discussing policy changes that affect them.

“This is money in our budget that saves this council money. The opposition claims this prooposal would save £246,000 – in factual fact, removing that money and not replacing it with anything else would change the staff terms and conditions. It would cost at least £129k each time any change to staff terms were made.

“To paraphrase a great socialist and Labour leader, it would result in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council, a Labour council, handing out redundancy notices only to have to re-engage them on new terms and conditions.”

Cafe reminder

But the sharpest reminder of the real impacts of cuts – and council priorities – came much earlier in the meeting, when a parent brought his severely disabled son along, pointing out that the council was cutting services for disabled people between the ages of 18 and 25.

Asking if Greenwich could help fund a sensory room at a council property in Abbey Wood, he asked: “We applaud the council’s commitment to safe and healthy living as epitomised in its £600,000 funding of the Slade cafe to include a much reduced lease for five years. We would like to know if this same commitment extends to disabled children and young people?”

While deputy leader David Gardner said the council was spending £12,000 on the sensory room, and £331,000 on short breaks for children and young people with disabilities, the £600,000 spend on the cafe was left unaddressed by either the council or the opposition.

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