Threatened by Government for trying to prevent fraud, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 19th January 2022

One of the worst parts of a council leader’s job is having to write off business rates debt. Although almost none of rates collected in Crawley stays here, it’s all money which should be going to pay for services. Yet, in every case this is debt we have pursued as far as the legal system has enabled us to go and where our independent auditors have made it clear that because the chance of recovery is nil, for our accounts to be accurate we need to strike it off. There is simply nothing more we can do.

The same is not true for the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has announced this week he will be writing off a staggering £4.3bn in COVID-19 fraud. That’s the equivalent of 128,000 nurses, 146,000 police officers or one and a half state-of-the-art aircraft carriers. At £156 per household, Crawley residents alone have lost a collective £6,817,200 in fraud.

Unlike business rates, none of this was legally accrued, it was the result of fraud and it was entirely predictable. Honestly, go check my Twitter feed from the first lockdown. Because Crawley Borough Council insisted on running fraud checks our Chief Executive was called-up by a Government minister who threatened the council with being ‘named and shamed’. That’s not exactly the motivational message people working well beyond their terms and conditions needed to hear. I was clear with officers, despite the threat, it was public money and we’d treat it as such, even if that meant taking a hammering in the press.

Meanwhile, I know of one local authority nearby which received praise from the Government for getting all of their grant money out of the door quickly. Unfortunately, they managed it by just posting out cheques to addresses, regardless of whether there was any business actually there.

How can we expect Britain to thrive, when the most powerful members of our Government are incapable of thinking past the end of the week, never mind into the next decade? Where the Conservatives are praising people today for the problems we know they are causing for tomorrow?

Open letter to Henry Smith regarding Boris Johnson’s conduct

Wednesday 19th January 2022

Henry Smith MP
Member of Parliament for Crawley
House of Commons
London
SW1A 0AA

Dear Henry,

It is now clear that regardless of the outcome of Sue Gray’s investigation, Boris Johnson has lost the confidence of the vast majority of the British public.

It a central principle of any liberal democracy that the law applies the same to everyone equally. Throughout the pandemic, residents in Crawley and across the country have accepted great sacrifices in order to save lives and protect the NHS and yet it now transpires that the very man setting the rules is unwilling to abide by them.

As a Conservative MP, you are the only person in Crawley with the power to do what your constituents expect to be done, by writing to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee and commencing the process for selecting a new Prime Minister.

I appreciate that this will be the second time in almost as many years you have supported a candidate for leader you later had to help remove from office and that it raises questions about your judgement, but be in no doubt that failing to act will in the eyes of the community be seen as complicity in the rule breaking.

Henry, put the country first, do the right thing.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Peter Lamb
Leader, Crawley Borough Council

COVID-19 Additional Relief Fund available for Crawley Businesses

Businesses that were previously ineligible for COVID-19 financial support can now apply for reduced business rates.

Crawley Borough Council has been provided with additional funding by the government to help Crawley businesses apply for reduced business rates for the current financial year that have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic but are ineligible for existing support linked to business rates.

To be eligible for relief funded by the government’s new COVID-19 Additional Relief Fund, businesses must be a ratepayer, liable and occupying the property for business rates in Crawley (for a period of a day or more) as at 1 April 2021.

Businesses will have to provide evidence to demonstrate a substantial loss of income as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and confirm that they have not been helped with other grants or business rates relief. Eligible businesses can apply at www.grantapproval.co.uk

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “We know that many Crawley businesses have been hit hard during the pandemic. We strongly encourage those who have not yet been helped by other council grants or business rates support to apply for this relief.”

This new relief is available to reduce chargeable amounts in respect of 2021-2022 only. The following thresholds apply:

– For income receipt losses of up to 10 per cent due to COVID-19, the maximum relief award is 10 per cent.

– For income receipt losses of up to 30 per cent due to COVID-19, the maximum relief award is 20 per cent.

– For income receipt losses of up to 50 per cent due to COVID-19, the maximum relief award is 25 per cent.

– For income receipt losses of over 50 per cent due to COVID-19, the maximum relief award is 30 per cent (up to a maximum of £10,000).

– In exceptional circumstances (at the discretion of the individual Local Authority), the maximum relief award is up to £20,000.

Additional Restrictions Grant available for Crawley businesses

Crawley Borough Council has been provided with additional funding by the government to make discretionary payments to support other businesses that may have been severely impacted by the Omicron variant.

Crawley businesses who meet the relevant criteria can apply for an Additional Restrictions Grant (ARG) of up to £3,000. In order to qualify, businesses must meet the following criteria: 

  • Businesses must be actively trading
  • Businesses must be severely impacted by the Omicron variant.
  • Businesses that have already received grant payments that equal the maximum permitted levels of subsidy will not be eligible to receive ARG funding
  • Businesses receiving an Omicron Hospitality & Leisure Grant will not be eligible to receive ARG funding

Applications are now open and must be submitted before 28 February 2022, however the funding for ARG (Round 6) is limited and the council therefore reserves the right to close the scheme early, if it is oversubscribed.

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader at Crawley Borough Council, said: “Although we have again not been allocated enough funding to help all local businesses, we are doing everything we can to support as many Crawley businesses as possible. If businesses wish to apply for the Additional Restrictions Grant, we urge them to do so without delay as there is limited funding. Support with applications is available via the council’s dedicated website.”

The following thresholds apply:

  • Mobile sole-trader or market trader operating on 30 December 2021 will receive a payment of £500
  • Premises with a rateable value of exactly £15,000 or under on 30 December 2021 will receive a payment of £1,334
  • Premises with a rateable value over £15,000 and less than £51,000 on 30 December 2021 will receive a payment of £2,000
  • Premises with a rateable value of exactly £51,000 or over on 30 December 2021 will receive a payment of £3,000.

When making decisions on the appropriate level of grant awards, other factors – including fixed costs, number of employees, ability to trade online and the consequent scale of coronavirus losses – will be taken into account.

To find out more and apply, businesses can visit: https://crawley.gov.uk/emergency/coronavirus-information/businesses-and-employers/business-support-grants

Tackling Crawley’s Cost of Living Crisis, Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 12th January 2022

The 2015 General Election seems a long time ago now, David Cameron promising to provide stability and strong Government, the Conservatives claiming that Ed Miliband would deliver chaos, and Labour referring to the ‘cost of living crisis’ so much that it became a joke in the press.

I guess we’ll never know how Ed Miliband’s Government could have possibly been more chaotic than the five years followed, with three Prime Ministers and the tearing apart of much of the British state and economy. Yet, by not taking Britain’s cost of living crisis seriously, our Government has allowed the problem to grow worse every year.

People can see it in the staggering cost of housing, in the ever-rising prices in the shops and in their extortionate utility bills. We’re living in an era of self-driving cars, quantum computing, and machine learning, the only reason millions of people in England today are facing Victorian living conditions are the political choices of our current government.

Energy is a clear area where solutions are possible and yet the Conservatives are choosing not to act. Yes, we need to do more to conserve energy, but you can’t have a situation where thousands of Crawley’s households are being forced to choose between eating or staying warm over winter.

The Labour Party has been pushing the Government to accept a one year cut in VAT on energy bills to enable households survive the current period of record high energy prices. This shouldn’t be a hard sell, Boris Johnson has himself previously pledged to scrap the tax on energy bills and as a country we’d clearly hope that the leader of the Conservative Party had some integrity.

Yet, short-term solutions aren’t enough. A decade of mis-investment in our energy system helped create the current crisis and that’s why Labour is also calling for a long-term approach to delivering energy security for the UK, including reducing reliance on imported gas through accelerating domestic new renewable and nuclear energy production, ensuring decent insulation for 19m homes, and introducing effective regulation of the sector to prevent companies from abusing the rules.

Crawley’s 75th Anniversary Column, Crawley Observer

Sunday marks the 75th Anniversary of Crawley’s designation as a New Town. At that time, the area consisted of a few small villages, several large country estates, and plenty of farms, the memory of which are preserved today in the names of many of the town’s roads and buildings.

Crawley had been intended to be the first of the New Towns built by the post-war Labour Government, providing new model communities, complete with housing people could afford, decent employment options, and large amounts of leisure space.

Although Crawley had initially been planned for a population of 40,000, that figure was quickly revised upward until by 1969 a final population of 120,000 was being discussed. While the figures from last year’s census have yet to be published, it is very likely that the results will show we have now hit that figure. Despite this and the fact that the town is now built up to the council’s boundaries, it seems likely that development will continue on our borders, no matter how much the council and residents oppose it.

While Crawley’s motto is ‘I Grow and I Rejoice’, growth can take many forms. Indeed, the motto is paraphrased from the writings of the Roman Stoic Seneca in which he expressed his joy at the personal growth of his interlocutor. It seems clear to me that the growth we now need in Crawley is in improving the quality of life within the town.

The area which has the potential to make the biggest impact is in improving the quality of employment opportunities in the town. Even before the pandemic Crawley had the lowest social mobility in the whole South East region and with thousands of jobs lost due to the lack of Government support during the pandemic, the importance of attracting employers who will provide real career paths, with decent pay and working conditions, alongside providing the training necessary for people to grasp these opportunities has never been more critical. This is something the council are fighting to deliver and will continue to do so for as long as Labour remains in administration.

How to making council housing sustainable without doing away with ‘Right to Buy’

For every four council properties we build in Crawley, we know we will lose three to Right-to-Buy by the time they are built. Increasing the overall supply of new affordable housing has been Labour’s number one priority in Crawley over the seven years since we regained control of the council, but despite being one of the best performing councils in the country for delivering new affordable properties, Right-to-Buy means that it will take us decades to make any serious inroad into our housing list.

Crawley was the second of the new towns built by the post-war Labour Government. Its purpose was to move families from slum housing in central London out into well-planned communities, largely made up of council housing. Following Right-to-Buy, the majority of the town’s council housing has been lost, many of which have now resemble the same run-down buy-to-let properties which the town was set up to cure. This comes with the added sting in the tail that the high cost of local housing means the Government often now has to help cover unaffordable rents in the form of housing benefit for properties they sold off at a discount, a discount which has cost the public sector over £265m in Crawley alone.

While I’d expect that many–perhaps most–Labour members would support doing away with the policy entirely, that’s not actually what I’m suggesting here. The 1959 Labour Manifesto was the first of any party to propose implementing a Right-to-Buy policy and in the face of the Conservatives’ housing proposals the 1979 Labour Manifesto made it clear that Labour did not oppose the sale of council houses to sitting tenants. In principle, Right-to-Buy provides a route for those on the lowest incomes to access home ownership, ensuring that the largest part of their household expenditure isn’t lost to them permanently while the housing costs of those on higher incomes acquire them an major asset.

Clearly, for Thatcher the goal was never empowering those on low incomes, it was political. She believed that by shifting people from council tenancies into owner-occupation you would move their focus from what the state could do for them to what the market could do for them, changing their voting behaviour. I think it’s fair to say that she was largely successful in achieving this and since the goal was getting people out of council housing, there was no attempt to ensure the system could replace the units which were being lost.

So, what can the next Labour Government do about this? For that we ought to look again at what the party said in its 1979 manifesto:

‘Labour does not oppose the sale of council houses to sitting tenants of two years’ standing who want to buy, so long as such sales are at a fair price and do not damage a local authority’s ability to meet the demands for decent homes to rent. But Labour will continue to oppose the sales of council housing in areas of serious housing need.’

Four decades on, the level of housing need in the UK is such that if this position was re-adopted, nowhere in the country would be selling any properties. However, the reality is if we want to significantly increase council housing in the UK, we need another Labour Government and ruling out Right-to-Buy would even now cost the party far too much support. Instead, we need to modify Right-to-Buy to make it possible for the country to deliver and maintain sufficient council housing stocks for those who need it, but doing so in a way which most of the public would consider to be ‘fair’.

Money isn’t everything when it comes to council housing delivery, but with enough of it you can usually get around the other issues, and the biggest issue with Right-to-Buy is the scale of the discount. Polling consistently shows public support for council housing and it is fairly easy to make the case that if properties are being lost under Right-to-Buy, councils should at least get back enough money to replace each unit lost, without any of the difficult rules the Government currently applies to the spending of council housing receipts.

Instead of ending Right-to-Buy, the next Labour Government should commit to doing away with the current arbitrary discount and instead introducing a fair discount. Such a discount would be based on what has already been paid in rent, less any maintenance and administration costs incurred in the course of the tenancy. As the value of each property will have increased since their construction, under this system councils would receive sufficient funding for not only maintaining, but increasing their council housing stocks. At the same time, as tenants won’t be incurring interest on a mortgage for the full value of the property, Right-to-Buy would continue to provide the lowest cost route to home ownership, while being easy to sell to the public on the basis of the contributory principle: people are getting out what they’re paying in.

The UK is years into a housing crisis with decades yet to come. Any solution must involve council housing, which is only sustainable with changes to Right-to-Buy. By ensuring Right-to-Buy discounts reflect what people have paid into the system, we can put council housing on a sustainable footing, without losing the lowest cost route to home ownership or throwing away another General Election.

New Year Column, Crawley Observer

2021, much like 2020, might well have felt like a year in which nothing happened. Certainly, the pandemic postponed much of what we might like to have done personally and professionally, and it’s much the same in terms of the public sector. Yet, looking back through the record of council meetings over the last twelve months, the reality is an awful lot of has been achieved.

In the year of COP26, the council has taken some major steps forward in our work towards sustainability, an area which I am pleased to say has substantial cross-party support. In just this month we have agreed stricter targets for reducing carbon, having already produced a comprehensive Climate Emergency Action Plan earlier in the year and we’ve started working on extending the District Heat Network across the Town Centre

We’ve finished several hundred new affordable homes, bought new temporary housing so people can remain closer to home, and taken decisions which will result in hundreds more new council homes being built.

It certainly wasn’t all upside, COVID has come at a heavy cost. We lost good friends to the virus, not least amongst them former mayor Cllr Raj Sharma. The impact of the pandemic on the council’s income also forced us to take tough decisions around services. In addition, the economic consequences of COVID continues to cause pain for many local businesses and households.

Yet, the council is working hard to rebuild what has been lost. We’ve brought forward investment which will deliver new centres of technological innovation on Manor Royal, delivered improvements to local training and jobs support, and worked to upgrade the town’s physical and digital infrastructure, ensuring Crawley’s will remain one of the most attractive places for employers to base themselves.

As we head into 2022, with Crawley’s 75th Anniversary now just days away, we can take comfort in knowing that while a great amount still needs to be done to deliver the town residents deserve, we have faced many obstacles on the path to where we are today, and as a community we have always managed to rise above them.

Christmas Column, Crawley Observer

It will be a decade next year since I started as Labour Group Leader on Crawley Borough Council and began writing this column. In that time the Christmas column has always been the easiest to write, with council business shut down for the year and residents not looking for anything too political.

Consequently, I’ve always written something fairly light-hearted, focusing on some traditional aspect of Christmas and how it relates to Crawley or encouraging people to spare a bit of time wishing well those keeping our services running over the holidays.

Unfortunately, this year it would be irresponsible not to use this space to ask people to remember that just because it’s Christmas, that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, in fact cases are higher than ever and we must all do what we can to limit the risk of spreading the virus to others.

We are privileged to live in a country where we have a health service capable of distributing vaccines at record pace, where you can literally walk-in and be vaccinated twenty-four hours a day. Unless told otherwise by your doctor, there is simply no reason other than stupidity not to get vaccinated or a booster. Although, we must also continue to wear masks and social distance in public spaces, because no vaccine is ever one hundred percent effective.

I know Christmas is when people come together, I know people are tired of restrictions and their financial consequences, I know a lot of nonsense is being spread online by people whose top medical qualification is owning a first aid kit, but I also know people who have lost parents due to giving them COVID-19. Do you really believe that they don’t look back every day asking why they didn’t take things seriously? That’s why the hardest thing to ask is also the most important: we need to act ourselves even if the Government won’t put new restrictions in place to limit the numbers of people we come into contact with to the bare minimum. It is the greatest act of charity we can offer those we really love.