Wednesday, February 13, 2019

"Newham’s left wing Mayor challenges Tory austerity in her first budget"

Hat tip "Labour Against Austerity"

By Daniel Blaney

"The Mayor [of Newham] has set out a clear ambition for housing in Newham, with a particular focus on increasing social housing stock in the borough.

This will require significant Council capital investment to complement the £107 million Greater London Authority grant under the Building Council Homes for Londoners programme.” 

That is the introductory paragraph of a paper at the December 2018 meeting of Newham’s Cabinet, approving a business plan for Newham’s “Housing Revenue Account” – the obligation to account separately for Council-owned social housing. Its technical material, and language quoted is a little dry, but perhaps it illustrates best the political change emerging from the replacement of Sir Robin Wales as Mayor in May 2018 with Rokhsana Fiaz. 

The February 2019 budget is new Mayor’s first budget. She and her cabinet colleagues regularly tout this as a ‘transitional’ budget, clearly frustrated it doesn’t in itself demonstrate the sum of the political ambition, but marks a significant change of direction. 

A more radical, transformative 2nd budget is to be prepared over the next twelve months. In reality, the housing aspects of this first budget are already radical and transformational. The fact that the “Housing Revenue Account” business plan is being transformed, is a demonstration of the role of actual council housing in the new Mayor’s priorities, both in terms of investment by building new council housing, and in investment in existing stock, improving the housing of existing tenants in their current homes. 

The London Borough of Newham is recovering from a scandal in its “Repairs and Maintenance Service”, which was exposed by the actions of a whistleblower in the last months of the Robin Wales administration. The service had been re-modelled to be prepared for commercialisation and was expected to behave like a business – and so commissioned to work on the Borough’s highways maintenance, but without a proper system of checks and controls. Millions of pounds were lost. 

This became more widely known through the publication of a report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), commissioned by Rokhsana Fiaz immediately on taking office. The practical reality for residents in Newham’s council housing is the repairs and maintenance service is much more about repairs and much less about maintenance. 

The first budget of the new Mayor effectively doubles asset investment in existing council housing, to £65 million in 2019/20. The detailed capital programme identifies work on lifts, boiler replacements, kitchens, bathrooms, windows, roofs, door entry systems and much more. 

The CIPFA report criticised a poor balance of planned and reactive maintenance, and so the capital programme should now stop leakage of public money through inefficient reactive spend. Meanwhile millions are allocated to find new council homes for Newham’s staggering waiting list. 

£28 million is allocated for acquisitions, including where sensible, Right-to-buy buy-backs. £82 million is allocated to the council building its own new build homes. Much of this funding comes from £107 million Sadiq Khan granted to London Borough of Newham as part of Khan’s Building Council Homes for Londoners programme – the largest allocation to any London Borough. 

The Affordable Homes for Newham Programme was agreed on 5 February 2019 and will “seek approval for new build and acquisition programmes at the earliest opportunity”. The budget sets aside £500,000 to fund 26 full time equivalent professional staff to work on the Affordable Homes for Newham Programme. 

The HRA business plan, the GLA funding and the Affordable Homes for Newham Programme all demonstrate Rokhsana Fiaz is likely to exceed her election pledge to deliver 1000 new homes at council rent levels. 

Meanwhile this ‘transitional’ budget is radically investing in children and young people. £1.2 million extra has been budgeted to guarantee the universality of Newham’s free school meals programme “Eat for Free” for Key Stage 2 pupils; £1.4 million is for additional youth services; £1.3 million for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities. 

Separately £3 million is allocated to work on Newham’s accreditation as a London Living Wage employer. The investment prioritised by the new Mayor is all the more remarkable given the general financial situation for Newham, as across local government; continued austerity imposed by central government further decreases government support for poverty stricken areas like Newham; Lyn Brown MP made a brilliant speech to this effect in parliament a few days ago and the challenges for local government are enormous. 

This year savings are coming from, amongst other things, fewer editions of Robin Wales’ vanity Newham Mag, previously published monthly; ending Robin Wales’ “Small Business Programme”; and more effective and active asset management. Council Tax rises by less than inflation, and for those eligible, the Council Tax Reduction Scheme cuts their Council Tax by half. 

Savings of £686,000 to Robin Wales’ “Every Child a Musician” programme have caused controversy, but the programme itself is controversial, regarded as a well-intentioned but inefficient and ineffective programme by various educational and music professionals. 

The Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accounting noted poor budget planning at Newham generally, but specifically cited Every Child for where previous expenditure increases had lacked budgetary oversight, and further overspends took place that were, in CIPFA’s view, unsustainable. CIPFA recommended the programme needed to be “re-evaluated” and the Council has pledged to do so. 

It proposes months of engagement on establishing a new more “ambitious creative and cultural enrichment programme” that will be available to all Newham children and which will serve the diverse cultural interests of Newham children. 

Meanwhile millions of pounds are allocated for additional support and preventive work on homelessness and rough sleeping, on democratically regenerating the Carpenters Estate and more generally demonstrating that Labour in local government is no longer aligned to the era of New Labour and is demonstrating how in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, Labour in office can actually deliver for its people. 

* All figures relates to 2019-20 unless otherwise stated.

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