By Councillor Alan Baldock / JobsWelfare / / 0 Comments

Labour’s alternative budget for Canterbury

Tonight, we make choices that affect lives, not based on need BUT based on the consequences of a failed Conservative-austerity Government’s choices.  I am speaking about a government that’s consistently failed to fund local authorities to deliver the services that our residents and our communities need.

Tonight, we face the contradiction of a traditionally “low tax” party – the Conservative Party – underfunding on a national level, yet raising taxes sharply here; this large CCC rise combined with the huge tax hikes by the Conservative KCC administration this week will hurt the poorest yet again. There are people who will find these rises unaffordable. There are people who will have to choose between feeding their children and falling into arrears. It is a sad day when so many people have to make that choice.

Tonight, Canterbury City Council’s Labour Group will propose three amendments. Each of our amendments looks to the future; and each amendment is modest in value, but ambitious in expectation.

I have highlighted the chronic housing need blighting our district many times. It does not, I repeat DOES NOT, have to be this way. In 2015 Cllr Neil Baker, in launching his new working group on housing offered the answer – he said “options explored over the next six months will include the delivery of hundreds of Council houses to the City and towns.” We remind Cllr Baker Junior that we are still waiting — and so indeed are 2700 families on the waiting list.

This Council’s own report ‘Housing Strategy 2016 – 2020’ could not be clearer on this crisis and its causes. This district harbors a low-wage / high-rent society. This economic contradiction is one that threatens to rip the heart and soul from our communities. Paying a typical rent of well over £200 per week to a private landlord will always be unaffordable for a single mum or a couple on minimum wage. It is also unaffordable to someone in insecure employment, as much of our workforce is. It’s a crisis that’s forced local families and children into temporary accommodation miles from their schools and their support networks. It’s a crisis that puts families in unaffordable and appalling private accommodations. There are children, right now, living in dilapidated, leaking, damp and mold riddled EKH homes.

Yes, that’s in OUR Council Houses. There are hundreds of children and vulnerable people in that state despite £500K of unspent repairs budget reported in this budget. Why are the council underspending on repairs I ask you? You cannot feign ignorance of how appalling some of these properties are? So where is the political leadership here putting proper change into action. We share those family’s tears – their feeling of hopelessness as they remain unable to afford to rent a decent home of their own or give their children hope, stability and the promise of health, because remember this well: THIS COUNCIL PUTS CHILDREN IN UNHEALTHY HOMES.

Last year this Council bought some houses. It also built a few, sold some under Right to Buy and bought some back at around market rate – demonstrating the capitalist’s dream – But thankfully we can look forward to that changing under the Labour Government coming at the next General Election. Despite all the promises & all the rhetoric, we still have 700 fewer Council houses than we did in 2012. This Council does not have a long-term plan to build the large number of new Council Houses needed – or truly affordable homes to rent.  Our first budget amendment will seek to correct that and create momentum for change by facilitating a Strategic Plan. This is designed to supplement the Housing Strategy 2016 – 2020 and not to re-write it. The detail of a complex strategic plan is not for a ‘Budget Amendment’ speech.

But we, the Labour Group, and hopefully yourselves will see this investment delivering a well-researched report set free to explore diverse funding options and partnerships.  It should consider:

  • Earmarking Council land and other sites to build Council houses.
    • To Explore Self-Help Housing Co-operatives.
    • Community Land Trusts
    • The Rural Exemption Scheme — interestingly we now know there has been just one in this district; you may have been confused by the Leader’s misleading Tweet on 4th January which suggested there were many more.
    • Maximize prudent borrowing through the Local Housing Company to build affordable rent properties.
    • And continue to budget for purchase as well

The strategic plan must of course set out an affordable, sustainable financial framework that will be able to fund a building program incrementally over a ten-year period. 2020 will see the lifting of the Government’s rent reduction policy; there is improved headroom for borrowing in the Housing Revenue Account of around £20M, still low interest rates and a likely increases in 106 payments and other incomes.  Factor in the differential between buying existing and building new homes, which a Savills report puts at deliverable around £140K.

We are not vague about this amendment’s ambition – this council needs a ten-year plan to build at least 100 NEW Council controlled houses every year, available at social rent.  This is a target that can be met if not exceeded.  It is time now to imagine an end to this housing crisis within a generation.

Our next amendment recognizes the priceless contribution residents make to their communities and the wider district.  Not only do they work hard but invariably come up with ideas that make the changes work in practice — It is that we seek to support with this amendment. In response to the Council’s motion on reducing single use plastics on Jan 4th, Labour is calling for us to put our money where our mouth is on eliminating single-use plastics and unnecessary packaging and encouraging community initiatives that have that goal.

‘Plastic Free Whitstable’ is one such group and no doubt there are, or soon will be, others.  So apart from leading be example in our own activities, we propose that £5000 in additional funding per Area Members Panel should be made available to support such community initiatives – specifically to galvanize sustainable alternatives to our addiction to single-use plastics like drinks-cups, water-bottles, straws and packaging.   We suggest the one-off funding of £20K should come from underspends, setting aside money that would have been used to reduce debt for a more immediate need to begin to tackle plastic pollution.

Labour’s final amendment again has the environment at its heart, this time it is linked to electric vehicles.  We, unlike many other Councils, have at least put a toe in the water with a modest investment of £10K next year in the “On Street Residential Chargepoint Scheme” – we suggest a further £10K is added to that sum, from general fund underspends doubling our investment.  The 75% grant funding available would allow this Council to invest in total up to £80K in on street charging. Cities far more ‘electric vehicle-ready’ than ours such as Milton Keynes, have seen a growth in electric vehicles driven by the convenience of more street charging points rather than “proven need” sites.  The urban streets of our compact towns and City open up the perfect opportunities.