Crawley Live Column, Spring 2021

A year on from COVID-19 reaching the UK, it is hard to overstate the effect it has had on Crawley. Our town’s economy–which had grown by a quarter during the time I’d been Leader–has been hit harder than any other in the country, creating the worst employment crisis in the town’s history and leaving a visible impact upon the town centre.

For the council, the priorities are clear. We need to focus on getting residents back into employment as fast as possible, helping to keep a roof over their heads until that can be achieved, and working to ensure businesses which are lost from the town’s key economic areas are replaced. This won’t be easy and we will need support from central government if we are going to turn things around quickly, but I am determined to ensure that Crawley’s best days remain ahead of it.

I must take this chance to pay tribute to the amazing work of council workers throughout the pandemic. Many have been working flat-out for twelve months now, often undertaking tasks which are nothing to do with their day jobs, sometimes in frontline roles, all of it to help our community through these tough times. The last year has shown just how critical public services are for our survival, they deserve better than the pay freeze announced by the Chancellor or the cuts the council is now forced to make to deal with the consequences of COVID-19 hollowing out the local authority’s finances.

Send us your questions now for the first ever virtual Crawley Question Time

Crawley Question Time is back for another year – and this time you can ‘attend’ from the comfort of your own home.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event will be virtual. It will be broadcast live on Microsoft Teams on Tuesday 16 March from 7-9pm. It will also be recorded and available to view on YouTube the following day.

Crawley Question Time takes the form of an independently-chaired general debate and discussion. There are no set topics so attendees can raise any areas or concerns for discussion, such as Covid-19, the economy, planning, community safety, Gatwick Airport, parking and so much more!

The event is open to everyone; the public, business leaders and partner organisations. The views and comments expressed will help the council and others to plan work on improving services and the town in general.

Questions can be sent in advance to haveyoursay@crawley.gov.uk or on the night in the ‘chat’ function of Microsoft Teams.

This year’s panellists will be:

  • Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council
  • Councillor Duncan Crow, Leader of the Opposition at Crawley Borough Council and Cabinet member for Fire & Rescue and Communities at West Sussex County Council
  • Councillor Peter Smith, Cabinet member for Planning and Economic Development at Crawley Borough Council
  • Councillor Bob Lanzer, Cabinet member for Economy and Corporate Services at West Sussex County Council
  • Dr Laura Hill, Clinical Chair, NHS West Sussex CCG
  • Inspector Steve Turner, Crawley Police
  • Leon Mukazi, Crawley Youth Mayor.

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of the council, said: “While COVID has taken much from Crawley, it has also made meetings more accessible by moving them online. With most of the town’s decision-makers making themselves available for this call, it’s the easiest chance you will get this year to have your questions answered.”

To watch this year’s Crawley Question Time, visit bit.ly/crawleyqt from 6.45pm on Tuesday 16 March.

If you have any questions about the event, email haveyoursay@crawley.gov.uk

Council welcomes new head of service

Crawley Borough Council has appointed a new senior manager.

Siraj Choudhury will take on the role of Head of Legal, Governance and HR from 29 March following a rigorous selection process, which included a virtual presentation and panel interviews with officers and councillors.

As the council’s principal legal advisor and Monitoring Officer, Siraj will have the specific duty of ensuring that the council, its officers and its elected members maintain the highest standard of conduct in all that they do. He will also oversee HR, Democratic Services, Elections, Audit and Corporate Support.

Siraj brings strong legal, governance and project management expertise from his various roles in local government and the third sector. After starting out as a housing solicitor, he obtained a masters in spatial planning before joining Spelthorne Borough Council’s legal team in 2008. Regularly representing the local authority in court, Siraj conducted litigation and handled a range of regulatory prosecutions, planning inquiries and inquest matters. He also acted as legal advisor for the planning committee and licensing sub-committees.

In 2015, Siraj served as a Principal Solicitor before being appointed to the role of Deputy Group Head (Commissioning & Transformation) the following year. Working across this multi-disciplinary group, he gained a wider corporate exposure and led on Spelthorne’s rapid workplace transformation project. Siraj has also served as the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and has held other non-executive positions.

Siraj said: “I am delighted to be joining Crawley Borough Council. The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in significant challenges for the council and for local residents and businesses. I intend to promote a culture of good governance, transparency and accountability as the council drives forward the recovery, restores economic prosperity and combats climate change.”

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “The Monitoring Officer is one of the three most important positions at the council, with responsibility for ensuring the council acts legally and with extensive powers to ensure that happens. The whole interview panel were impressed by Siraj’s detailed understanding of not only the role itself, but the town, the council, and the challenges we currently face. I am confident that he will prove a strong addition to the council’s management team.”

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 3rd March 2021

Crawley is now a year into the pandemic, yet with over 25,000 residents already vaccinated we can at last see light at the end of the tunnel. While I’m sure the prospect of returning to life as normal will come as great relief to us all, the reality is for many the struggle is far from over.

Furlough and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme are only temporary schemes, protecting jobs from the impact of the Government’s coronavirus restrictions, and sooner or later they will end. Almost 23,000 Crawley residents are already unemployed or on furlough and SEISS and while we hope people will return to their old jobs once these schemes have ended, the reality is many will not.

The problem isn’t just that the UK’s unprecedented economic decline will mean it takes time for businesses to need a full workforce again, but that many have used the crisis to restructure in ways which require fewer employees and on poorer conditions. There’s no returning to normal, the question is: will Crawley accept poorer jobs prospects, less affordable housing, and a town centre boarded-up shop-by-shop? Or, will we fight back?

Crawley, our NHS and the welfare state weren’t built during prosperity, they were built by a country bankrupted by the cost of WWII. Yet, instead of accepting stagnation, Labour grew the economy back to prosperity, investing in the infrastructure and skills businesses needed to thrive and constructing housing people could afford. That’s the route to prosperity Crawley Labour is offering.

Since the economic impact of COVID-19 became clear, the council’s Economic Recovery Taskforce has worked to develop a plan for delivering new jobs and regeneration for the town’s key economic centres, coupled with the council’s existing ambitious affordable housing programme. While we believe a ground-led recovery is possible, Government support in the form of freeport status for Manor Royal, an Institute of Technology, Crawley Innovation Centre, and help towards our Green New Deal for Crawley would vastly speed-up the process, saving local families years’ of hardship. Today’s Budget will be a strong indicator of Government willingness to help Crawley back on its feet.

Budget shows Crawley voters ‘utterly taken for granted’

As one of the economies hardest hit by the Government’s coronavirus restrictions, expectations were high that Crawley would receive significant new support in the Budget. Yet, instead of new support, the town faces millions of pounds cut from the Towns Deal funding already promised to Crawley voters before the last General Election.

With almost 23,000 residents now unemployed or stuck on furlough and SEISS waiting to see if they will have jobs to go back to, Crawley’s economy has been hit harder by the Government’s coronavirus restrictions than almost any other in the UK.

Writing to the Chancellor before the Budget, Cllr Peter Lamb—Leader of Crawley Borough Council, called for a Jobs-Focused Budget for the town, highlighting that the promised £25m of Town Deal funding would no longer be enough to significantly improve the employment crisis facing the town and raising the council’s various requests for support from the Government, such as its bid for a freeport on Manor Royal.

Yet, the Budget today not only rejected Crawley’s bids in favour of investing in marginal constituencies in the North of England, but slashed millions of pounds from the Towns Deal funding which had been committed before the pandemic hit.

Cllr Lamb said:

‘If I was a Crawley Conservative voter and I’d lost my job four months after the General Election due to the Government’s coronavirus restrictions, then I heard that my Government’s Budget not only gave all the job-creation opportunities to marginal constituencies in the North, but slashed the funding we’d already been promised before the election, I would feel utterly taken for granted.’

Council Leader calls for a Jobs-Focused Budget

With almost 23,000 Crawley residents now unemployed or waiting on furlough and SEISS to see if they have a job to go back to, the Labour Leader of Crawley Borough Council has written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer calling for a ‘Jobs-Focused Budget’ on Wednesday.

Crawley’s economy has been hit harder by the Government’s coronavirus restrictions than that of almost any other town, with 6,030 people out of work, 12,528 on furlough and 4,200 claiming the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.

In April last year, Cllr Peter Lamb—Labour Leader of Crawley Borough Council—and Henry Smith—Conservative MP for Crawley—wrote to the Government outlining the unique threat for Crawley posed by the Government’s restrictions and outlining ten ways the Government could help the town to recover.

So far, Crawley has received no more support from the Government than those town’s least affected by the restrictions. Not even the £25m Town Deal funding Crawley residents were promised 20 months ago, before the General Election, has been granted. At this time, £25m is too little, too late to make a significant difference to the town’s jobs problem.

Crawley Borough Council’s Economic Recovery Taskforce has been working with public and private sector partners to develop a comprehensive plan for getting Crawley back to work and regenerating the town’s main economic areas, but various parts of the plan need Government support to take place, these include: freeport status for Manor Royal, an Institute of Technology, Crawley Innovation Centre, and the council’s ‘Green New Deal for Crawley’.

With the furlough cut-off looming, on Wednesday the Chancellor must deliver a ‘Jobs-Focused Budget’ giving local employers the confidence they need to retain their workforce and providing the council with the support it needs to get Crawley back to work.

Cllr Lamb said:

‘On the ground, everyone is working together to try to protect jobs and attract new employers to Crawley, but there are a number of things we simply cannot do without Government support.

‘Before the pandemic Crawley’s economy was booming, growing by a quarter during just my time as Leader, the only reason families are struggling right now is due to restrictions imposed by the Government. The Budget on Wednesday is the Government’s chance to do the fair thing and show they are willing to work with us to put things right.’


Monday 1st March 2021

The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP
Chancellor of the Exchequer
1 Horse Guards Road
Westminster
London
SW1A 2HQ

Dear Mr Sunak,

The report released today by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Future of Aviation has confirmed what many of us have been saying for almost a year: host towns of major airports have been hit harder than almost anywhere else by the Government’s coronavirus restrictions.

The furlough and SEISS schemes have certainly proven helpful in protecting many jobs and the business grant schemes have also helped a number of our businesses, although their level of funding and design are a poor match for the shape of Crawley’s economy. However, despite correspondence with various ministers and the inclusion of civil servants in the council’s Economic Recovery Taskforce, we have essentially received no more support for protecting and creating jobs than the communities least affected by the Government’s restrictions.

Indeed, we are still waiting for the £25m Crawley residents were promised before the last General Election, money regularly referred to by ministers in response to our requests for support. The delay in receiving our Town Deal funding has cost the town jobs, both those it would have enabled us to protect and the new employment it would have enabled us to attract. It is also worth noting that Crawley Borough Council alone will be spending £77m in capital improvements over the next year. Simply put: the Towns Deal funding is too little and too late to now make a substantial difference.

What we and hundreds of communities across the UK need on Wednesday is a Jobs-Focused Budget, one which provides employers with confidence they can retain their staff for long enough to find their feet again, and more importantly sets the ground for the recovery we need to get Crawley back to work. Until recently, Crawley had been an enormous source of tax revenue for the Treasury, the economic recovery of Crawley will be a vital step for the country in paying off the record-levels of debt the Government has been accruing.

While the council is working with public and private sector partners to deliver new employment opportunities for Crawley, there are a number of major projects which are still waiting for Government approval and which would greatly speed up the pace of the town’s recovery, saving hardworking families from years of hardship. These include the council’s bids for a freeport and an Institute of Technology, funding for the Crawley Innovation Centre, and support for the council’s ‘Green New Deal for Crawley’. Mr Sunak, let’s work together to get Crawley back on its feet, and hundreds of other communities like mine across the UK.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Peter Lamb

Leader, Crawley Borough Council

Funding to protect frontline services and build affordable housing in council’s budget

Crawley Borough Council’s budget for 2021/22 will protect frontline services and invest in more affordable housing.

The budget, which was approved at a meeting of Full Council on Wednesday (24 February), will see the council spend £13.6m on council services – a reduction of £1.1m from last year.

The council’s 2021/22 capital programme includes:

  • £20.5m on housebuilding including Forge Wood and Breezehurst Drive
  • £314,000 on IT improvements
  • £916,000 on disabled facilities grants
  • £89,000 on the Three Bridges Station forecourt improvement scheme.

The council has identified additional income, efficiencies and savings of £1.81m, meaning that the council’s element of Council Tax will rise by just 2.37 per cent, the equivalent of only 9.5p per week for a band D property. This equates to an increase from £208.89 to £213.84 for a band D property.

West Sussex County Council has agreed a rise of 4.99 per cent (£71.82 on a band D property) and the precept for the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner will rise by 7.5 per cent (£15 on a band D property).

For every pound paid in Council Tax, West Sussex County Council will receive 78p. Sussex Police and Crawley Borough Council both receive 11p.

Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “For the last 12 months, all my efforts have been focused on navigating Crawley through the pandemic and tackling the huge financial pressures it has created for the council. With the budget approved, the council can now fully focus on our next challenge: rebuilding our local economy and getting Crawley back to work.”

Councillor Duncan Crow, Leader of the Opposition, said: “This year has been very challenging and we’ve had to make some difficult decisions. Both political groups on the council have worked constructively together and we’ve listened to residents through our extensive consultation, enabling us to pass a budget that keeps the council on a sound financial footing and able to continue providing high quality services for Crawley.”

For more details on Council Tax bandings and ways to pay, visit www.crawley.gov.uk/counciltax

Thanks to our fantastic NHS 25,361 have been vaccinated in Crawley – Council Leader, Cllr Peter Lamb

Crawley Borough Council Leader, Cllr Peter Lamb (LAB), has today praised the NHS and all those involved in the vaccination roll out as new figures reveal so far 25,361 people have been vaccinated in Crawley.

Commenting, Cllr Peter Lamb, said:

“Crawley has faced an incredibly difficult year. We’ve lost friends and loved ones, been denied important moments of our lives, and have suffered a bigger economic hit than almost anywhere else. So, the fact that almost 26,000 Crawley residents have now been vaccinated comes as very welcome news.

“We all owe the NHS, its doctors, nurses, and volunteers a huge debt of gratitude for their astounding efforts in getting us this far. We’re not out of this yet, carelessness now could still see infections quickly climb again and we still face hard work rebuilding what the town has lost, but it this is a vital first step and one for which we should all be deeply grateful.”

2021 Crawley Borough Council Budget Speech

Today has felt a very long time coming. It was in March of last year that it became clear the global pandemic would hit Crawley hard and while, rightly at the time, all action was focused on determining the best approach for getting the town through the first lockdown and the immediate challenges involved:

Ensuring those shielding had access to food and medicine

Working with the police to ensure compliance with the rules and restrict access to prohibited areas

And making our services COVID-safe, so that the council could continue to undertake the full range of its duties on behalf of the community.

Throughout it all we knew that this year’s budget would require substantial cuts, the first this council has had to make in a number of years.

The reality is that the vast majority of the council’s money to pay for services comes from three sources: retained business rates, council tax, and income generated locally (paying services, fees and charges).

Crawley’s economy has been hit harder than almost any other and as a result our level of business rates has dropped hugely over this year, something which will not recover until all those empty units are filled again.

The knock-on effect to unemployment means that far more households now qualify for council tax benefit, meaning fewer people paying council tax towards services.

And throughout the lockdowns the council’s paying services have not only not made money, but lost substantial amounts of money due to a range contractual obligations.

While the last of these three things may recover quickly once the restrictions have ended, the reality is that business rates and our council tax base will only return to previous levels when Crawley’s economy has fully recovered.

Mr Mayor, we can only spend money the council has. Unlike central government, we cannot legally borrow to fund our services, the law also states that the council cannot fund services from our capital reserves and were the council to set a budget which committed to spend money the council did not have, under local government legislation the government would send in commissioners to take a red pen to the budget, without understanding or concern for the needs and priorities of the community.

So, when the council’s income drops, we have two choices: find a way to make the money back elsewhere, or cut spending down to our new income.

For the last six years, this council has taken the former approach. Wherever we have faced cuts, we’ve set about making the money back elsewhere. Investing those reserves we can’t spend on services in property, to upgrade the council’s paying-facilities to bring more money in, and rebuilding the current expensive-to-run Town Hall with a much lower running cost facility with new income streams from A-grade commercial space and its low-carbon District Heat Network.

I would dearly love to take this route again, to pull another rabbit out of our hat and keep things as they are. Unfortunately, this year two things prevent it. Firstly, the scale of the income drop this year is far beyond anything we have faced over recent years, something we would need much longer than a single year to replace. The second thing is that until the pandemic has passed we have no way of generating money in the way we have in the past.

That leaves us with only one option we can legally take: cutting our spending to match the councils income.

For the first time, members of both Labour and the Conservatives agreed to work together on this budget, to get the town through this crisis.

We considered all the options.

We looked at all the alternatives.

Then we asked the public what they thought.

The budget consultation we conducted received the most responses the council has ever received on a consultation before, a real success given how limited our opportunities for contacting residents.

Two-thirds of the savings which have been made are back office savings. For the remaining frontline cuts we followed the priorities expressed by residents during the consultation.

Unsurprisingly, for those affected, the cuts we eventually proposed remain unpopular. I do not doubt that they face a loss, one I would really wish we didn’t have to cause, but we simply do not have that option.

Regardless, when we received surprise Government funding at the end of last year we took the decision to reduce the impact of the proposed cuts this year and to maintain those services for as long as the council could afford.

But, it is not all doom and gloom. We will continue to invest heavily in new council housing this year, which is funded differently to council services, providing much needed new affordable housing for many long-term residents.

We will also be investing over £77m in capital improvements in key parts of the town and council’s infrastructure this year and co-ordinating far more on behalf of and in partnership with other organisations.

And, as always, we will work to find improvements to the way we provide services within our existing budget, to meet the needs and aspirations of our residents

This budget sets the council on sound financial footing for the next year and, while things are tough right now, I fully believe Crawley and its council have far better times ahead. It’s now our job as councillors to go out and deliver it.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 24th February 2021

Tonight, Crawley Borough Council will formally set its budget for the next 12 months. This budget is the first in Crawley’s history to have been produced entirely through joint-working, with Labour and the Conservatives working together to steer the town through the challenges created by COVID-19.

Without a doubt it has been the hardest budget I’ve had to produce since I became leader in 2014 and the first in which cuts have proven entirely unavoidable. While the council has seen its revenue from Government aggressively cut for a decade, over the last six years we have always found alternatives to cuts by carefully investing the council’s reserves and increasing the use of the councils paying services to generate income.

The economic impact of COVID-19 has not only reduced the number of people eligible to pay council tax and shrunk the business rates base, but effectively shut down all the council’s paying services. In all we’ve lost around £2.4m from £15m net revenue expenditure, with no way of raising more money to close the gap. Even so, we’ve worked to limit the impact on frontline services, with two-thirds of the budget gap closed through back office savings.

To decide the remaining cuts to services, we put proposals out to consultation–the biggest in the council’s history, and went with the options preferred by the public. Regardless, we recognise that reducing the number of adventure playgrounds and the level of grant funding available to the voluntary sector will hit some groups harder than others, which is why when more money was made available by the Government we scaled back these proposed cuts for the next council year.

I suspect that the council will pass the budget tonight almost unanimously, the question is: what next? We’re not past COVID-19 yet and a delayed Government review is expected to propose further cuts to Crawley’s budget. However, once the pandemic is over, there will be new opportunities for the council to generate its own income again and I’m determined to do everything I can to get back the money Crawley needs to provide the services residents deserve.