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Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 18th September 2019

Earlier this year, Crawley Borough Council joined with other local authorities and legislatures around the world to declare a climate emergency, recognising the rapidly decreasing window of opportunity mankind has to stop catastrophic climate change.

While the challenge is global, this is a war which can only be won if action taken by every individual at every level of human activity. The importance of conserving water and energy, reducing consumption and recycling where possible, and switching to more sustainable forms of transportation are all well advertised and most people do now seem to make an effort to do their bit, even if we all have room for improvement in our lives.

The council is also currently towards carbon neutrality. In addition to reducing the town’s dependence on carbon by helping to roll-out greener sources of energy, we’re working to enhance the insulation of local homes, improve the town’s public transport and cycling infrastructure, make greater use of wildflower verges, and switch council vehicles over from fossil fuels. Our goal is to ensure that with each new set of improvements we can bring the target date for carbon neutrality forward.

Yet, while we can all do our part, ultimately we cannot achieve the change we need without change at the top, we need a national strategy with the power to build the economy of the future. 250 years ago the UK kicked off the Industrial Revolution, a force which was not only swept the country, but the world and made our country the world’s strongest economy on the planet for well over a century.

For the last few years, Labour has been creating the policies necessary to kick-start a Green Industrial Revolution, at the heart of which is a principle that giving up on fossil fuels does not mean giving up on improving people’s lives. On the contrary, by making the UK a global leader in the next stage of the world’s economic development we have the chance to not only help undo the damage of our first Industrial Revolution, but to deliver a better quality of life for all UK residents.

Crawley Live Column, Autumn 2019

The two biggest decisions for our town for many years have arisen over the last few months: Gatwick Airport have asked to be allowed to bring forward a second runway by using both their main and stand-by runways at the same time and Homes England, a successor body to the Commission for New Towns which built Crawley, is seeking permission to build thousands of new homes on the Western-side of Crawley.

Amazingly, Crawley Borough Council is not the decision-maker for either of these decisions, with the Government set to decide upon Gatwick’s plans and the housing development falling within the planning area of Horsham District Council. Nonetheless, we are working hard to ensure that the implications of these developments for Crawley are clearly understood by the decision-makers and that, in the event either proposal is approved, every possible measure is put in place to limit their impact upon the town.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 11th September 2019

As MPs are sent off on an enforced five week holiday, only a week after their last one, Crawley Borough Council is hard at work doing what we can to keep services services going and to work out how, best as possible, to protect residents from the implications of Brexit.

This is extremely hard to do, in large part due to the Government being more focused on electioneering than governing right now. Having been on conference calls with ministers in the Home Office and DEFRA to discuss Brexit preparations, there is a complete lack of detail to help us to prepare. Much to the contrary, we are instead the ones being asked to tell the Government what the local impact will be of negotiations we play no part in and policies far more wide-ranging than local government. Ultimately, it is impossible to prepare for all the potential outcomes without clear national guidance.

When it comes to local services, things are little better. Under the Conservatives, Crawley Borough Council’s income roughly halved, this stopped when I became council leader due to Labour prioritising finding new sources of revenue to make up for what the Government was taking from Crawley, but every year we face fresh cuts.

The Spending Review was the Conservatives’ chance to put right the funding gap they had created, but the opportunity was missed. Despite the headlines, much of the money isn’t ‘new’ money but funding already in the system, and far less than what has been cut from our police, schools and other public services since 2010.

For councils, it turns out that much of the ‘improvement’ in our funding is actually to come from council tax increases, rather than the Government and that other funding streams are being closed at the same time others are opened. The one genuinely good bit of news was that the Government is delaying for a year their plan to take money from Crawley Borough Council and give it to West Sussex. Still, that gives us more time to find an alternative to cuts. If only the Government would do the same.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 4th September 2019

This afternoon the Chancellor will be presenting the outcome of his snap one-year Spending Review, detailing the Government’s planned expenditure on services for the next year.

There are a few things which are unusual about this review, the first is because spending reviews involve planning how the Government will spend over a third of the UK’s GDP, they usually take longer than a month to prepare. The second is that they always cover multiple years of expenditure because spending reviews are about medium-term financial planning, after all the Budget sets out planned annual spending. So what’s going on here?

Well, imagine you were a Government who was planning a snap General Election and that after years of failing to invest in the Police, the NHS and Education–to name just a few areas–you were worried people might notice you’d run their services into the ground, wouldn’t you want to present an advert for how with another term you could fix the problems you’d caused?

The Spending Review has been thrown together so quickly it doesn’t even include data from the latest economic forecasts, consequently the money it’s talking about spending may or may not even exist. What we’re getting now is a live party political broadcast, rather than a genuine commitment to invest in our services.

Before the announcement had even been made promises were already beginning to unravel. For all the pledges to increase the size of the Police, it turns out that few of those hired will be genuine frontline police officers, on promised spending for the NHS–of which our Crawley was given none–it transpires the money ‘given’ is what they had actually already earned, and schools will have to wait three years before getting the £7.1bn which has been announced, all the while rising costs widen the gap between what they need and what they’re given.

People are smart enough to see through the performance, to know to ask how much money is coming to Crawley and when, and why if money is available we’ve had to suffer the loss of services for years.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 28th August 2019

How does a council survive when the Government takes away its entire grant and then prepares to take over £1.3m more?

They could make cuts. That’s what the Conservatives did when they ran Crawley, what they’re doing at West Sussex, and at Conservative-controlled councils across the UK. Alternatively, they could find the money elsewhere.

Only 11% of your council tax goes to Crawley Borough Council, that’s under half the council’s budget and, because household incomes haven’t improved in a decade, as Leader I’ve limited council tax increases to at or below inflation. So we’re not finding the money there.

Next there’s business rates, yet from £120m collected in Crawley we keep just £6m. So while we’re working hard to grow Crawley’s economy, we only benefit financially from 5% of what we deliver.

We also get a bonus for building new houses, a share of the sale value of Crawley’s recycling–although West Sussex is ending this, and fees and charges from things like licenses, planning applications and venue hire. However, that’s small change compared to the budget gap.

What about reserves? Because the Government bans councils from using capital reserves to pay for services, we’re using them to buy properties and redevelop the Town Hall so rents from the new commercial space we’re delivering can pay for the services instead, in addition to a new Town Hall being far cheaper to run.

We’re also using existing assets to generate new income. Some of that is through creating new leisure attractions, but it also comes from the rents on properties like shopping parades.

When a business’s lease is up for renewal rents are proposed based upon what the market is bidding for vacant units, businesses can successfully appeal this by showing how the rent does not reflect the value of the property. This is the standard market approach and it has worked this way for over a decade. What the council cannot do is subsidise profit-making businesses by keeping rents lower than their market value, it isn’t in the public interest to do so when it means cutting services or increasing council tax.

Chancellor, help us solve homelessness in Crawley

 

In advance of the Government’s Spending Review, I have written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in support of Crisis’s campaign to see the current Local Housing Allowance raised. Sounds boring? Maybe, but it is one of the biggest changes which the Government could make to address homelessness in the UK right now.

The Local Housing Allowance is the maximum amount the Government will pay out in Housing Benefit in an area. This isn’t a problem in principle, public money should be used carefully in order to deliver the best result for the whole of society. The issue is that the level at which the allowance has been set won’t pay the rent on the vast majority of properties, making it next to impossible for people to wholly cover their rent using the benefit.

Now, I don’t think it’s ideal that the state has to pay people’s rent, but the mass sell-off of council housing coupled with an ongoing failure to build enough housing in the right places means that this is the price we pay to avoid large-scale homelessness. It is also worth noting that only a fraction of those in receipt of the benefit are on JSA, these are people who are in work and simply reflects the fact that the cost of living in the UK is now so out of control people cannot afford to live on what many employers are willing to pay. Clearly making housing more affordable and improving people’s employment conditions would be the best solution to all of this, but so long as the Government is only willing to pay lip-service to tackling the big problems we’ll just have to make do with more temporary fixes.

The sting in the tail for taxpayers is this. Councils have a duty to deal with homelessness, but because they can’t put people in housing above the Local Housing Allowance increasing numbers of people are placed in temporary housing. Temporary housing costs more than the Local Housing Allowance, but councils are legally obliged to provide it and it comes out of their local budget. While that isn’t the Treasury’s problem, it certainly is local residents who across the country are coughing up a billion pounds a year to prop up a system which is in practice increasing homelessness.

Add to that the human cost. Being left to live in a bed and breakfast for prolonged periods means people put their lives on hold. Worse, because there’s only so much of it at any one time, people can be moved far out of area making it hard to access support networks, keep kids in school or sustain employment. It’s appalling. It’s unnecessary.

Raising the Local Housing Allowance would be better for those at risk of homelessness, better for the public purse, better for society as a whole. It’s an obvious solution. That’s probably the biggest reason I’m sceptical that it will actually be implemented.

 


Wednesday 28th August 2019

 

Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP

Chancellor of the Exchequer

HM Treasury

1 Horse Guards Road

Westminster

London

SW1A 2HQ

Dear Mr Javid,

Following your announcement that a one-year Spending Review will be produced in September, I write alongside the leaders of other Housing Authorities to urge you to include the necessary resource for councils and other public agencies to best prevent homelessness, through investing sufficiently in Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates.

Fulfilling the Government’s promise that it will end rough sleeping by 2027 requires substantial work to prevent homelessness in the first place, in addition to tackling the numbers of people already sleeping on our streets.

Increasing investment in Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates will help councils and other public agencies to deliver results with immediate impact on the levels of homelessness across the country. As you will know, in 2011 LHA rates were reduced from the 50th percentile to the 30th percentile of the rental market and have since been subject to below inflation increases and a four-year freeze since 2016. The freeze is due to end in April 2020 and returning LHA rates to cover at least the cheapest third of private rents (the 30th percentile) – as called for by the national homeless charity Crisis and several other expert organisations as part of their Cover the Cost campaign – would mark a significant step change in successes in preventing homelessness and alleviating extreme pressures on local government in areas of high housing need.

Low levels of LHA rates are resulting in thousands of families currently unable to afford rent in the private sector and are therefore at increasing risk of becoming homeless. Losing a private tenancy is currently one of the most common causes of homelessness in the UK and has been the leading cause in England for the past six years. Research by the Local Government Association in England found that 86% of responding councils identified private sector affordability as a barrier to rehousing people.

This carries an unnecessary human cost and acts as a false economy for local and national government, with councils having to cover the difference in rent when placing households in expensive temporary accommodation, costing our residents £1bn a year.

Whilst in the long-term, measures that increase the supply of genuinely affordable housing will undoubtedly address the root causes of the affordability problems experienced by many, investing in LHA rates now, as part of the upcoming one year Spending Review, will result in an immediate impact on decreasing current levels of homelessness, and enable struggling families across the country to cover the cost of their rent and keep their existing homes.

I hope that this letter provides reassurance on upcoming investment decisions related to this matter and helps produce a Spending Review outcome that delivers on this vitally important issue.

Yours sincerely,

Cllr Peter Lamb

Leader, Crawley Borough Council

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 21st August 2019

‘I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. And I warn you not to grow old’. Over 36 years ago, these words highlighted those who would be hit hardest when a Government allows public services to crumble. Yet, here we are, in a new century, and they could just as easily describe the UK today.

Just this week, the Childhood Trust has reported poverty leaving children so hungry they are forced to scavenge in bins, the UK has lost its measles-free status with patients unable to access GPs, and 1,000 dementia patients a day enter hospital due to the lack of care leaving them malnourished. This is the state of Twenty-First Century Britain, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where we allow our children and parents to starve and essential public services to collapse, while our Conservative Government remains obsessively-focused on Brexit.

Instead of real action we are presented with smoke and mirrors, with news stories pretending that problems are being dealt with. An announcement of £1.8 billion of new money for NHS trusts turned out to be money they already had, promises of tens of thousands of new police officers which now no longer appears to be a like-for-like replacement of what we’ve lost, and a commitment to put the money back into education which was taken from it and which now appears to focus the greatest investment on the wealthiest parts of the country. Our public services need investment, not press releases. How can we function as a country when we cannot believe a single thing our Government says?

It doesn’t have to be this way. If austerity is over then let’s give our area back the 800 police officers and PCSOs we’ve lost under the Conservatives, so we can tackle crime and antisocial behaviour in Crawley. Lets reinvest in Health, so we can take Crawley’s NHS out of Special Measures and ensure everyone has access to a GP. Let’s give our young people the start in life they deserve again and our senior citizens the dignity we owe them in their old age.

Press Release: Council Leader calls for an end to the ‘Rail Rip-Off’

Following the Government’s decision to allow rail companies to again increase ticket prices above inflation next year, Cllr Peter Lamb—Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Crawley—has called for an end to the ‘Rail Rip-Off’ which has seen fares soar by 40% in a decade.

The price of a season ticket between Three Bridges and central London has risen by over £1,100 since the Conservatives returned to Government. At the same time average real wages have fallen, meaning Crawley’s commuters are not only paying more than ever before to get to work, but they are having to do it out of a smaller pay packet.

While the rail companies have been allowed to keep hiking prices every year, the quality of service endured by commuters has continued to decline, subjecting passengers to more delays, more cramped trains and fewer opportunities to access essential facilities, such as ticket offices.

Cllr Peter Lamb, said:

“Like many residents, I depend upon the rail network to get to work. I know the frustration of being asked to pay out more and more every year for a service that just keeps getting worse. It’s time we had MPs who were willing to end the Rail Rip-Off and give the public back control over the nation’s railways.“

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 14th August 2019

I can understand why people get sick and tired of hearing about Brexit. Three years on from the referendum, the issue just drags on-and-on, providing an endless source of arguments on the news and in our day-to-day lives.

Yet, it’s not something which can just go away, the consequences of bailing out without a deal–by far the quickest approach–are so serious that even our hard Brexit-supporting Conservative Government say they would still prefer to leave with a deal.

Nonetheless, the Conservatives do now seem willing to risk our country’s future on a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, with every part of the public sector being approached to help prepare. After 38 months of uncertainty, for the Government to only be starting on this work with a little over two months left highlights unbelievable levels of incompetence and comes across as more of an attempt to have people they can blame when things go wrong than a genuine attempt to prepare communities.

Despite the deep concerns many of us have with the Government’s approach, councils will all do their best to plan for the consequences of Brexit in order to protect their residents.

However, in all the letters and phone calls with ministers, it is extremely worrying to find almost no detail, just constant requests for information from councils and general requests that we do everything we can to get ready. It comes across very strongly that the Government is aware that they do not have time to prepare proactively for all the potential problems and so are just gearing up to try and deal with them reactively when they arise. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, a failure to plan is planning to fail and it is all of our futures they are gambling with.

A ‘No Deal’ Brexit wasn’t what was offered at the referendum or at the last General Election, it has simply never been put to the voters. If that’s really what the Government thinks the public wants, maybe they should ask us before shutting down Parliament and forcing the UK down a road we are totally unprepared for?

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 7th August 2019

How many times have we been told ‘there is no magic money tree’? It has been used to explain why we can’t have decent public services, why those with disabilities must go without support for their extra living costs, why the age of retirement keeps being pushed back, and above all why people shouldn’t vote Labour, even when every manifesto pledge has been costed and financed.

Almost a decade into cuts we find Crawley’s NHS stuck in financial special measures and residents unable to register with a GP, law and order breaking down as losing 800 police officers and PCSOs makes its mark, and local headteachers marching on Downing Street to make it clear they do not have the budget necessary to educate our children. So, it’s welcome to see that our new Prime Minister appears to have found that elusive magic money tree.

However, it does raise a few questions. Firstly, if the money was always there, why have we been forced to go through years of pain with people unable to access the medical care they need, with stabbings and drug dealing taking place openly on our streets and letting a generation of our young people being down?

Secondly, the investment in services and the numbers of police officers which are being discussed are equivalent to what was provided by the last Labour Government, is the limit of the Conservatives’ ambition to be as good as a Labour Government or do they have a vision of their own for our services?

Lastly, given the Prime Minister’s extremely poor track record on seeing through his commitments when Mayor of London, is he really being honest with what he is promising now or is it simply a last minute bid before a snap General Election to buy our votes before giving us more of the same. Given that the investment in the NHS promised this week all appears to be at hospitals next to marginal Labour constituencies, when frankly East Surrey could do with the investment, it makes you wonder if Mr Johnson is taking us all for a ride. Again.