My South London Press column, 26/02/2016

In my last column I said that very reluctantly we were considering following the Government’s advice and increasing the level of Council Tax in Lewisham in order to take some of the pressure off the services we have been forced to cut back in recent years, particularly those that provide care for our older residents.  We decided to raise the tax by 3.99% last Wednesday, which sounds like a large rise.  In practice it means that we will be asking people whose properties are in Band D for Council Tax to pay 45p extra each week which is less than the cost of a single Cadbury’s Crème Egg if my calculations are correct!

It is not a decision any of us took lightly – we know that many of our fellow residents get by on fixed incomes and any increase in cost really does cause problems.  But we also know that many of the essential services that the Council provides are under severe pressure.

For some residents it is possible to claim a reduction in the Council Tax depending on your particular circumstances and it is worth visiting the Council’s web site to see if you qualify

Lewisham was the first council in the country to pay the Living Wage and we continue to do so. We will also be doing more to encourage other employers in Lewisham to pay the Living Wage, including through offering a Business Rate discount for those who follow our lead and get accredited.

The Government recently announced that employers with more than 250 staff will be required to publish the Gender Pay Gap in their organisation – that is the difference in the average pay of men and women.  In the UK women earn 20% less than men on average.  Lewisham Council already publishes information about gender pay difference and the most recent information showed that there is a significant gap but not in the way you might expect.  The median earnings for female employees stands at £32,930 and male median earnings at £27,879. No you haven’t misread that – women working for Lewisham earn more than the men!

We also heard this week that there will be a referendum in June on whether or not Britain stays in Europe. I personally believe that the implications for us leaving the EU would be disastrous and have long lasting effects on our future prosperity, particularly here in London. I am therefore very pleased that Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, will be campaigning for us to stay in Europe. We need a Mayor of our city who understands the importance of our place in Europe, and in Sadiq Khan we have that champion.

Advertisements

My South London Press column, 05/02/2016

February for many people is the month when romance is in the air but for Local Government it is something quite different – it is the month when we have to set the budget for the coming year and take ever more difficult decisions about what services can be sustained and what level of council tax is right.

Throughout my time as mayor I have supported the Lavender Trust Charity and this year there is an “Alternative Valentine’s Day Dinner” on February the 11th in the Phoenix Restaurant at Lewisham and Southwark College.  Why “Alternative”? Because it’s not just a great place for couples but everyone is welcome too – details can be found at http://www.lewisham.gov.uk/mayorandcouncil/mayor/Documents/ValentinesDayDinnerA5.pdf

But it will be the Council’s budget that takes up most time at the Town Hall this month.  Of course we work on this all the year round but things become more intense when the Government tell us how much funding they are prepared to provide each December.

It is easy when something you’ve been worrying about turns out to be less painful than expected to breathe a sigh of relief and say “Well that’s OK.” That is exactly how many people reacted to that announcement in December, but they were wrong.  It’s not OK.

Council budgets have been hit harder than any other part of the public sector and while we have responded by making ‘efficiency cuts’ we have also had to make cuts that have reduced services. This year’s Settlement changed how and when the loss of Government funding happens to us, but it will still happen.

The Settlement also did something quite unexpected.  It told Councils to increase Council Tax!  For years Government has been telling us not to increase Council Tax and created incentives to help us do this.  Since 2010 Lewisham has only increased Council Tax once but now we have been told to put it up 2% to help fund Adult Social Care and the grant that we have been receiving as a result of freezing Council Tax in previous years is being taken away leaving from us, facing either a further Council Tax rise or even deeper cuts next year.

Over the next few weeks we will have to resolve these dilemmas and we know that there is no easy answer.  The services the council provides are important to many residents but we also know that an in increase in Council Tax will be an unpalatable choice for many of you facing rising costs in so many other ways too.

On the other hand I am sure that the students of Lewisham and Southwark College will make sure that the Valentine’s Dinner is extremely palatable!