Cabinet agrees tax on empty houses

Crawley Borough Council’s Cabinet agreed plans to increase Council Tax rates for empty properties at its meeting last Wednesday (25 September).

The decision was made to increase rates to incentivise property owners to bring them back into occupation.

Currently, owners of empty properties are required to pay an additional 50 per cent on top of the normal rate of tax according to the property’s banding. However, amendments to the Rating and Council Tax Act 2018 enables local authorities to apply a higher rate to any properties that have remained unoccupied and unfurnished for more than two years.

The changes will take place from 1 April 2020 and the increased rate of Council Tax will be decided depending on the number of years the property has remained vacant.

In Crawley there are currently:

  • 13 properties that have remained vacant for between two and five years. The owners of these properties would be required to pay a 100 per cent increase from April 2020
  • Five properties that have remained vacant for five years or more. The owners would be required to pay a 200 per cent increase from April 2020
  • Five properties that have remained vacant for more than 10 years. The owners would be required to pay a 300 per cent increase from April 2021.

If these properties remain empty, the increase in Council Tax will bring in an additional £53,913, with the council retaining 11.5p for every £1 billed (£6,200), West Sussex County Council receiving 77.8p and the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner receiving 10.7p.

Leader of the Council, Councillor Peter Lamb, said: “The demand for housing is ever increasing and while the council is progressing with the development of new properties, it’s important to ensure that existing properties are being utilised.

“While the number of empty properties in Crawley is low, the increased rates will help encourage property owners to bring them back into use and contribute to the housing need in the town.”

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 2nd October 2019

There’s a well-known phrase often attributed to George Orwell: ‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ While it’s disputed whether he used the exact phrase, it certainly represented the socialist author’s views, expressed both in his works and–more importantly–his actions: taking up arms to fight Fascism in the Spanish Civil War and repeatedly attempting to join the British Army in the Second World War, only being rejected on the grounds of his health.

Almost seventy years since Orwell’s death–at 46, from tuberculosis–the truth of his words and actions live on. Our society lives free from violence and oppression only thanks to men and women putting their lives at risk to defend us from harm. The question for our community is how we should repay that debt.

Last week, a national campaign was launched to reduce the number of homeless veterans to zero. This is something I wholeheartedly support and Crawley Borough Council are already undertaking the actions suggested by the campaign. After all, we were one of the first councils to sign-up to provide support to current and former servicemen and women through an Armed Forces Covenant, and I was proud to introduce the Veterans Interview Scheme at the council to ensure veterans had the chance to highlight their unique abilities in a way CVs to not always easily show.

There’s always more which can be done and, as a member of Labour Friends of the Forces, I look closely at what others are providing elsewhere to see what we should do next. Yet, not every problem can be tackled on the council-level and earlier in the year a report produced by the House of Commons Defence Committee showed: “there is no doubt that some serving personnel, veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system.” In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, that simply isn’t good enough. It’s time the Government did their bit to ensure our veterans get the support they deserve.

Crime up 77% in Tilgate and 13% across Crawley

New figures reveal crime in Crawley has risen by 13% in under a year, including a staggering 77% increase in Tilgate. The figures have prompted renewed calls from the town’s Labour councillors for frontline Police cuts to be reversed.

Sussex Police figures reveal that between August last year and July 2019—the most recent month for which data has been made available—crime in Crawley has risen by almost a sixth, with Tilgate suffering the biggest increase.

Since 2010, Sussex Police—who are responsible for policing in Crawley—have lost a third of their funding from central government, meaning that despite large increases in the police’s portion of council tax the service remains seriously under-funded.

Over the same period, Sussex Police have lost 634 Police Officers and 160 PCSOs, with 98% of police cuts coming from frontline roles.

Speaking about the state of policing in Crawley, Cllr Lamb said:

“Everyone could see that cutting police numbers would result in an increase in crime and yet year-after-year local residents are being forced to live with the growing risk that they or their loved ones will be a victim of crime.

“For all the Government’s promises, the numbers show our local police force still won’t see their funding fully restored or officers returned, leaving criminals to do as they want. That is totally unacceptable. Crawley deserves better.”

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 25th September 2019

Every country has a constitution, the UK might be rare in that our constitution is found in an uncodified collection of laws, books and traditions rather than a single written document, but it remains a constitution nonetheless. That constitution sets down the rules as to how our country will run itself, including the checks and balances which prevent our Government from becoming a dictatorship and protect our democratic rights as citizens.

Yesterday’s decision, by Britain’s most senior judges, made it clear the Government has gone beyond the limits of their powers under the UK Constitution, that in order to secure the prorogation of Parliament Boris Johnson lied to the Queen, and through her the British people.

On the one hand, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, Mr Johnson is a man who was fired from The Times for writing fraudulent articles and more famously promised £350m for the NHS which he has since had to accept does not exist, so why wouldn’t he lie to the Monarch in order to get what he wanted? However, it does raise a question: is this the most we can expect from our country’s Prime Minister?

I don’t claim to be perfect in any way, but any council officer or Labour member who has spent time with me will know the importance I place in politicians honouring their word, even to the point of delivering things people mistakenly thought we had promised in order to avoid adding to the cynicism in politics. The simple fact is a democracy cannot function when we cannot believe what the Government is telling us.

Maybe that’s all too optimistic, but just consider where we are now. Many of the powers delegated to the Prime Minister and the Government are technically still in the hands of the Queen, who acts on their advice. Yet, we now find ourselves in a position where her Supreme Court has told her she cannot trust the advice of her ministers. This is a situation which cannot last under the UK’s constitution. Something is going to have to change for the nation to survive.

Press Release: Council Leader calls for the return of Crawley’s police funding

Following the release of new figures showing that Government cuts to police budgets are over three times greater than the recently announced new funding, Cllr Peter Lamb has called for Boris Johnson to keep his word and return Crawley’s police funding.

Since the Conservatives came to power, Sussex Police—who are responsible for policing in Crawley—have lost 32.3% of their funding from central government, leaving local policing in a weakened state.

The news comes on the back of recent revelations that despite 98% of police officers lost from the service in recent years having been cut from the frontline, around 7,000 police recruits will never see frontline duty.

Speaking about the state of policing in Crawley, Cllr Lamb said:

“Following the loss of frontline officers, crime and antisocial behaviour are now the top issues residents raise with me on the doorstep. They are tired of seeing it in our town centre and across Crawley’s neighbourhoods. Only the police have the power to end the decline and only the Government has the funding to give us the officers we need.

“We deserve more from our Prime Minister than empty promises, it’s time he learnt to keep his word and gave Crawley back its police.”

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.