Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Camden Council Tax 2009: time for a tax rebate for most vulnerable groups and proper economic regeneration strategy

Camden council is current going through is annual process of budget-setting. An early indication of the intention of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as indicated by the Executive in November, is for an ‘inflation’ increase of 2.5% in council tax.

This figure is the same as the target for the year before, meaning that council leaders have not taken any account of the downturn in their plans for the next year.

Meanwhile, other councils have looked more radically at the issue of council tax. Essex, for example, has come up with the idea of offering a rebate for certain groups. Under plans drawn up by the Conservative Authority, up to 30,000 vulnerable households will benefit from a £100 one-off rebate.

As opposition spokesperson on Finance, I think Camden Council should implement a rebate policy.

Why? The economic downturn is beginning to bite, and the council needs to do something to help people with their bills.

So far, Camden – unlike neighbouring Westminster – has not come out with a programme either to help small businesses through this period, or to help residents. As rebate for over-80s or vulnerable families would be a welcome step. It would be better than a reduction as it would be more targeted at those least-equipped to pay.

The cost of the Essex scheme is £3 million. In Camden this would be lower (we have a lower population), and this could be funded by a combination of savings and the diversion of the massive surpluses Camden has built up over the last 3 years.

2006/07 - £14 million underspend / surplus at end of year
2007/08 - £10 million underspend / surplus at end of year
2008/09 - £13 million underspend / surplus at end of year (projected)

Camden’s finances clearly have the balance to give a one-off rebate to households in the New Year – does the leadership have the courage to stand up to officers and deliver it?

Camden should undertake an immediate review of its advice and debt support arrangements. As it stands Camden Council is funding welfare advices services at a much lower rate than when times were good, thanks to the massive budget cuts to advice services in 2006 and 2007.

This is a ludicrous policy. Camden should immediately boost its funding for debt and advice services – restoring funding to 2005 levels at least.

Camden should also reverse unpopular decisions it has made on fees and charges, such as hiking fees 267% for parking permissions for traders and increased charges for market stall holders, just as Labour has proposed.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Parking permits up by 267%

The Camden New Journal carries a story about how the council is hiking permission-to-park notice for builders from £9 to £33 - a hike of 267%.

The reason: to bring the charges "in line with Westminster."

Read the article here.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Lib dems go AWOL in Camden Libraries

Rumblings have started in Camden’s library users group (CPLUG), questioning Liberal Democrat libraries policies.

Alan Templeton, CPLUG leader complains in the Camden New Journal of the “closure of libraries by stealth” as new figures show that between 2006 and March 2007 more than 35,000 books in Camden libraries were sold off or thrown away by the Town Hall.

The Good Libraries blog noted Mr. Templeton's comments:

“The Councillor in question, Flick Rea, is a very nice lady well known in the area and an excellent ward councillor, but since being elevated not only to responsibility for libraries in Camden, but also to the London Libraries Development Agency, has not shown the courage that is needed to face the issues in her own council .. She needs strong support and some more steel in her approach…”

Templeton’s letter didn’t get a response from the politician accountable for this decline – but the libraries officer. Templeton responded by a Camden New Journal Forum piece.

Still no sign of the a response from elected politicians on his concerns.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Lib Dem national youth crime policy launch bungle at youth project Camden Lib Dems cut

New Lib Dem national policy on youth crime is in tatters today after bungling Lib Dem Chris Huhne MP today committed a massive gaffe by attacking Labour for not doing enough about youth crime, during the launch of his new national policy document, a Life Away from Crime, at a Camden youth club his Lib Dem administration notoriously cut funding from this very year!

Huhne said at the launch today: "If we want to tackle the problem of youth crime, we need to take action early to stop kids from embarking on a life of crime before it’s too late.”

Quite – so why did his Lib Dem colleagues cut funding from the Haven youth club then – and clubs in other deprived areas? To recap, Castlehaven Community Association is a centre providing services for the local community mainly activities for children / young people and for older people.

But this year Lib Dem-run Camden Council cut the budget for the youth club by £25,000, 52% of the grant. This affects the services it provides and the complete viability of the club.

The club has only just managed to cover the shortfall temporarily but this will not be possible moving ahead.

The Haven is the only youth club in the area, serving a population with the second highest level of deprivation in the borough and one of those with the highest numbers of children. It is extremely well regarded, has been praised by external inspectors, practitioners, the council others agencies as well as young people themselves.

In February it hosted the borough’s knife workshop. It has a purpose build media studio, youth club and sports facilities, and this Friday hosts the Camden Unity Cup. Its intergenerational work has been much praised bringing old and young people together.

The plight of the youth club was highlighted by Ed Balls in a visit this April – see this YouTube clip, which includes an interview with a key worker whose job was under threat.

The Haven was a victim of the Lib Dem inspired funding reworking which saw council funds moved away from areas previously designated as regeneration areas – the poorest and most in need of such services, effectively cutting services in those areas of highest need.

At a council deputation by Castlehaven in April the cuts were criticised by Labour councillors as well as a Conservative councillors, one who actually said it was Lib Dem politicing to fund their areas, which does seem the case.

The other clubs in deprived areas the Lib Dems have cut funding to are:
- Samuel Lithgow in Regents Park Ward -34% cut in funding
- Queen’s Crescent - covering Gospel Oak / Haverstock wards
- Highgate Newtown Juice Bar - Highgate ward

At the deputation in April the then Lib Dem Executive member said they had “other priorities” but said they would look at other funding for Castlehaven. But little has happened since then though the new exec member visited recently and praised services. They have also not allocated the large chunk of government / Mayor’s money for youth funding granted to Camden yet. R

ed-faced Lib Dems need to stop national policy launches at services they have cut, and start funding them again.

The Lib Dems point the finger at government funding for councils - but this doesn't wash in Camden, where the Lib Dems have just admitted to a £10 million services underspend this year.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Youth cuts dominate Regent’s Park ward Area Forum

Youth cuts to the Samuel Lithgow youth club dominated last night’s area forum, held at Netley School on William Street.

Samuel Lithgow, a local charity, is the only youth club on the estate – serving hundreds of local children out of a property owned by the council.

Over the last year the charity has – with the help of local councillors and the West Euston Partnership – secured a £350,000 contribution from British Land (from the Osnaburgh Street development), which helped a successful £400,000 contribution from the Big Lottery.

Despite this, the hard work of local volunteers has been undermined by a cut of over 30% in core funding – threatening the future of the youth club and its work with young people in the area while the centre is shut for rebuilding from the end of this year.

Without continued funding by the council the ability of Samuel Lithgow to operate effectively even after the rebuild is compromised.

The council defence – put across by the leader of the council recently - is that “more money is going into youth projects” than before. Actually this is being spent on programmes run elsewhere by the council, which cannot be used for staff wages. Without the funds to pay ‘core’ costs, youth projects have trouble recruiting and retaining staff, leading to a deteriorating service – with shorter hours.

What has happened to Lithgow has also happened to Fresh in Highgate, Queen’s Crescent and the Haven in Camden Town.

It’s not like this is a question of resources – the council have just admitted another massive underspend of £10 million. Just to give you an idea, to keep the Lithgow going would cost around £30,000 – 0.3% of this total.

Instead of stashing our cash – Camden should fund the Samuel Lithgow properly.

Monday, 16 June 2008

More youth cuts as we approach summer

It’s looking like hard year next year for Camden’s youth centres after another round of cuts by the Tory and Lib Dem administration.

After cuts to Queen’s Crescent, The Haven, Highgate New Town in this year’s funding commissioning process – the Samuel Lithgow on the Regent’s Park Estate now faces reductions - despite being in a high area of need.

Samuel Lithgow Youth Centre (SLYC) funding from Camden Youth & Connexions Service has been slashed from £45,000 in 2007/2008 to £29,792 in 2008/2009 - over 34% of funding slashed overnight.

What’s worse is that this decision to cut funding flies in the face of the hard work local volunteers have done towards raising £1,000,000 to fully refurbish Samuel Lithgow building (which belongs to LB Camden). When SLYC is shut for refurbishment/extension in December, for a year, it will need an extra £15,000 to rent local venues to deliver our services and to hire an office space.

It will also lose income from the fact that groups who normally rent the space will go elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the council seems to have no plan for what replacement services there will be to cover the shortfall. As everyone on the Regent’s Park estate knows – youth issues are on the rise, so cutting Samuel Lithgow makes no sense at all. This is just another set of cuts in a long line of post-2006 council funding decisions.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Camden weakens Street wardens in hotspots

Good news and bad news for local people with Camden’s excellent Street Warden service.

One the one hand they have been given new powers – and can now issue fines. On the other hand, the service has been diluted - a move labelled "naive" by local residents.

So the experience street wardens have gathered over the years in the hotspots of Kings Cross, Bloomsbury and Camden Town is now diluted.

(Not a peep, I should add, from Camden Town Lib Dem councillors Chris Naylor or Libby Campbell, over the last year on this issue - something which will come back to haunt them).

I say diluted, because with no increase in resources or personnel the wardens service will be much weaker now that it covers all of Camden.

Street Wardens were a good service because they grew trust over time locally, and were respected - especially on the estates.

Wardens were also proactive in ways PCSO aren't - organising football tournaments with local Somali kids hanging out on the streets.

How on earth warden with experience of ASBOs in Camden Town will be able to identify suspects when walking in Fortune Green is a puzzle to me – a point I raised at the Camden Town Unlimited meeting yesterday.

Remember - there was an alternative – Camden Labour promised to establish a fully-funded Street Warden service across the borough in our 2006 manifesto.