Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Council Assembly Tonight

We have the first Council Assembly of 2008 tonight. Amongst the issues up for consideration are "Setting the Council Tax base" and a Labour motion on Decent Homes works in Southwark.

The Council Tax base is a decision about the percentage of Council Tax which we expect to collect in the next financial year. This informs the level of Council Tax which will be set next month. In an ideal world the Council would collect 100% of the Council Tax due from residents, but this never happens as people move away or simply will not pay. Despite orders against them, there is little that can be done in some cases. The report before us proposes a council tax collection rate of 96% - effectively writing off 4% of potential council tax revenue for next year. We think that Liberata, the company which is paid handsomely to collect our Council Tax can do better, and that we should set a target of 97%. I'll keep you posted on the result.

There have been reports in the local press in recent weeks that the Council faces a shortfall of £60 million plus in paying for works to bring our council housing up to the Government's 'Decent Homes' standard. I have even heard rumours that this figure is a gross underestimate and that the real shortfall is in excess of £300 million. This presents the Council with a huge problem, which will affect not only this administration, but the next one after the 2010 local elections.

With this in mind Labour have proposed a motion this evening to establish a cross-party working group to look at the financial problems facing Decent Homes in Southwark and to try and come up with a solution which is in the interests of all of the residents of the borough. I think that there are some issues where the public expect to see politicians working together to sort the problem out - and housing improvements in Southwark is just such an issue!

I honestly cannot see a problem with our proposal. But it will be opposed by the LibDems and Tories who have accused Labour of "playing politics" when the opposite is the truth! If our motion is being opposed because there is no funding shortfall, then I will be delighted and relieved. But I suspect that is not the case and the coalition running Southwark is simply too afraid to let us know the truth.

Anyway I hope they change their minds before this evening. Working together has to be in everyone's interests on this isssue and I am not sure that the public will understand a "yah boo" political approach from the Libs and Tories.

Death of Lambeth Cllr Liz Atkinson

I was sorry to hear last night from Lambeth Chief Whip Cllr Alex McKenna, that his Vassall Ward colleague Cllr Liz Atkinson had died last week. I met Liz on an number of occasions and she was always conscious of the need for a "whole Camberwell" approach to issues despite the fact that it is an area which is divided between Southwark and Lambeth. Liz was Mayor of Lambeth last year.

I know that Liz will be missed by her many colleagues in Lambeth, and by those residents of Camberwell who valued her good sense and friendship.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Stories of 2008 so far!

A belated start to blogging in 2008, but no shortage of things to write about! Last Tuesday I went to a meeting with John Healy, the Local Government Minister, to make the case for even greater funding for Southwark over the coming three years. The meeting was a cross-party event and I was happy to put the interests of the borough as a whole above purely partisan politics.

Central Government funds about 70% of spending in the borough, and the increase which we will be receiving in 2008/09 is 2% more than the current year. This is just on the Government's inflation target, so it does not provide any real scope for growth in spending, and could mean that the Council will have to review its expenditure in certain areas. The Leader of the Council has spoken of the need to close 3 leisure centres, or putting key regeneration projects on hold as a result of the limited increase, but I think this amounts to a degree of scare-mongering. At the end of the day the decisions about how money is spent in our borough will reflect the political choices and priorities of the ruling LibDem/Tory coalition.

I was keen to stress to John Healy that people will not understand if the Council does not deliver on our major regeneration projects, so I hope that a future meeting which we agreed to have will find some additional funding to secure the regeneration of the Aylesbury Estate and Elephant and Castle.

The LibDem's Executive member for Regeneration announced his resignation last week. Richard Thomas has served on the Executive since 2002 and been in charge of Regeneration since 2006. I am truly surprised at his decision to quit, although the local newspapers say he will be the first of many this year. With limited talent on the LibDem benches it is not obvious where his replacement is likely to come from.

Finally, the Camberwell Grove Working Party met last week to discuss plans for the re-opening of the road. There are still huge problems with any traffic light "solution" on Camberwell Grove, as it has the potential of creating real gridlock in the area. So the latest proposal involves the re-opening being limited to the south to north carriageway (the only carriageway which will be open after the repairs in any event) with north to south traffic continuing to be diverted. This is not a perfect solution, but with the severe limits resulting from the bridge repairs no solution is 100% acceptable. This proposal at least has the advantage of keeping traffic moving on Camberwell Grove, especially during the morning rush-hour. Officers have gone away to consider the proposals in greater detail, and I will update this page with any further information I get.