Thank you Mr Mayor. I would like to start by thanking officers for their help and support, particularly given the unique challenges that everyone has faced over this past year. And in particular thanks to Mark Maidment and his team for their time to discuss the detail of this budget.
I would like to propose an amendment.
This year has been quite unlike any year, certainly in my lifetime, and the impact for all of us in Richmond Borough and beyond has been significant. For too many there has been personal loss as well as the challenges of lockdown.
When I walk past Essex House Surgery which is the local GP vaccine centre for my ward, the sight of people waiting patiently for their vaccine is truly emotional. The vaccine roll out has been incredible with over 20million people having received their first dose, and it brings us the glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. And as we emerge from this pandemic supporting our residents and our community to get back on its feet must be this council’s priority.
So it may surprise you that given this challenging year, when many people are struggling, that this council plans to raise council tax by 4.65%, for our residents that means an extra £87.02 for a Band D property at a time when we already have one of the highest rates of council tax in London and when many residents are suffering a loss of income due to the pandemic.
Perhaps you might assume that budgets are tight and that raising taxes are sadly necessary. And yet despite the huge challenge presented by Covid, this council finds itself this year in a far better financial situation than expected. Indeed, there is a projected underspend of £5.7m.
Perhaps you might assume that the global pandemic has hit budgets hard so that the administration needs to push up taxes, but in fact the unprecedented financial support from our Conservative Government means councils have received over £6.4 billion in extra funding since the beginning of the pandemic, with Government support to councils, businesses and communities of almost £30bn. In Richmond Borough we have received this year: The £8.2m Covid support grant, plus the hardship fund of £1.1m with a further £7.8m of income loss compensation anticipated as well as a number of other grants.
Another impact of the pandemic has been a change to how much and where people travel. For Richmond that means that there have been lower passenger journeys on public transport in the borough, with the resulting impact that the council’s contribution towards the cost of concessionary fares is expected to drop by £1.5m for the coming year and further still the year after.
This is money that the council would previously have transferred to the GLA, a £1.5m saving for the council, but not so it seems for our residents who not only face an increase in council tax of 1.05% due to the Mayoral precept, but a Lib Dem administration who pocket the savings so residents are charged twice for journeys they aren’t even making.
What then of the council’s reserves? The money set aside for a rainy day? Indeed in a time of a global pandemic, on the back of 365 rainy days of covid, in fact our reserves continue to be strong with essentially no net change this year nor planned for next year.
Perhaps you might think that this council tax rise is needed because the council are paring back budgets or maximising efficiencies? And yet generous contingencies continue to be built into the budget with plans to allow £1m within a Covid-19 recovery contingency fund, and a £2.6m contingency against potential loss of income.
On the back of a challenging 12 months this is the year that our residents need help but what do our residents get, the same unimaginative budget, and a 4.65% council tax rise. And an administration that is padding out its contingency ready for another multimillion pound underspend next year – a year which happens to be a local election year when they can use that money for a cynical council tax cut and big spending pledges– this budget isn’t about helping residents, it’s about helping the Lib Dems with their election campaign next year.
We need to help our residents get back on their feet,
We believe that this Council should give back the £1.5m to residents that it has saved by not having to pay the Mayor directly for concessionary fares by not just freezing the general level of council tax but reducing it.
We believe the Council should commit to supporting residents this year to bounce back from the challenges of the pandemic – this should be a covid recovery budget and we propose prioritising spending on those who have been desperately impacted by the pandemic.
By helping the young people in our borough whose education has been severely interrupted. We won’t wait to help them catch up. This council should commit a further £500,000 for direct support to schools to be spent on additional education and catch up classes for the most vulnerable students. On top of the £700 million recovery package for children and young people in England already announced by this Conservative Government.
The pandemic, and lockdown, are having a profound impact on the mental health of many people. We won’t wait to help them and to work towards our ambition that mental health should be treated with the same importance as physical health. This council should commit an additional £100,000 this year to fund increased mental health spending.
And We are committed to helping all our high streets and local businesses recover after a challenging year of Covid, we won’t wait to help our high streets.
This Lib Dem administration has already committed £4.4m in the capital budget for the redevelopment of Twickenham Riverside, and their lack of transparency means they still won’t put in the accounts how many millions more they plan to spend. This is a development that could be cost neutral, and with £4.4m already committed, not a penny more should be spent.
Instead, this council should plan for an additional £4m of capital funding to rejuvenate highstreets across the borough starting in Heathfield & Hampton Wick. Ensuring that we are helping not just our big high streets but looking after the parts of our borough that this Lib Dem administration has forgotten and ignored, places like the Nelson Road parade of shops in Whitton, Powder Mill Lane especially following the closure of the Duke of York Pub, and the Castelnau Parade which has been severely impacted by the closure of Hammersmith Bridge. We will focus on supporting businesses and areas in our community that need help to bounce back, and we won’t wait to do it.
And this council should address the discriminatory lack of toilet provision in the borough, by committing money to fund provision. Because this pandemic has amplified a very real problem where some people are shut out of visiting parts of our borough because of lack of toilet provision - menstruating women, pregnant women, those with young children, those with disabilities or bladder conditions may all be disproportionally affected because this council refuses to address a fundamental issue.
And we will stand up for our residents by allowing for a £2m capital contribution for the repairs to Hammersmith Bridge alongside holding Hammersmith and Fulham Council to account to pay their share. Because our residents have suffered enough, and this council needs to lead the way, to step up and support its residents instead of making excuses for the failures of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.
Despite the very real challenges now of Covid, we cannot overlook the Climate Change Emergency, and we will continue to commit further funds to tackling that emergency. We will set aside funds to help people on the lowest incomes adapt. And we will commit money to fund domestic and small business energy assessments to help save energy and save money for our residents and small businesses.
This is the time to stand up for our residents, to help them now, and to help our businesses and community recover from the pandemic. We won’t wait for that to happen. This council has the means to reduce the general level of council tax, to help young people whose education has suffered, to support those whose mental health has been impacted and to give all our high streets the help they desperately need. This council should not wait to help them.
I therefore commend this amendment to the council.