Wandsworth Has Highest Council Rents In The Country

By Cllr. Peter Carpenter

The Leader of Wandsworth Council this week announced, with much fanfare, the Open Council initiative, but nowhere in the 27 key indicators will you find Council Rents or Council Service charges. Nor will you find them in the longer list of 90 key indicators. I would suggest that there is a reason for this. Wandsworth has the highest council rents and service charges, not just in London, but in the country. Not number one for service and value, but number 169! So much for the openness and transparency trumpeted by our Dear Leader.

If we look at the detail of Council Rents, we see that the Council’s proposed average rent increase of £8.33 a week or £433 pounds a year, takes the average council rent to £121.70 or £6,270 a year. Quite a lot of money for anyone on a modest income. However, the government has set a limit rent of £113.26 a week, close to Wandsworth’s current average rent of £112.38 a week. What does this mean? It means that the government will not reimburse Wandsworth for housing benefit paid above one hundred and thirteen pounds twenty six a week. According to the Housing Department’s figures 73 per cent of the proposed rent increase will be paid back by Wandsworth in Housing Benefit, only 27 per cent will be retained to spend on our housing estates. So out of total rent increases of £7.4 million, Wandsworth will retain only £2 million. I would submit that this is a very inefficient way of raising money.

If any one of us were donating to a charity and we were told that 73p of every pound we donated was going to be spent in administration costs, I suspect that we would very soon cross that charity off our list. But that is exactly what the financial wizards of Wandsworth are asking us to do. The only people who actually pay the £433 rent increase are the hard working and aspiring families who are not in receipt of housing benefits. Precisely the people who have been squeezed hardest by the government’s austerity measures. People whose votes one would have thought the Tory Party aspired to. Indeed the only time I can recall this Tory council reducing rents was immediately before the 2010 election, and that didn’t do them any good because they lost four seats.

What is even more peculiar is that the Housing Revenue Account doesn’t even need the two million pounds that will be raised by this rent increase. It is in rude good health with ample reserves of one hundred and eighty five million pounds. These will be boosted by the new financial settlement with the government to well over a billion pounds by the end of the 30 year planning period. I really am at a loss to understand this policy. It seems to me that by pursuing these reckless rent increases, the Leader has shot himself in the foot.

We see the same thing when we look at some of the service charges. Charges for communal heating and hot water to some 4,000 of our tenants and leaseholders are to rise by an average of 20 per cent, reflecting the increase in energy prices last year. But this average disguises some individual increases of over 60 per cent, £5 a week or £250 a year. At the Housing OSC I proposed that increases over 30 per cent should be phased over two years to mitigate the impact on hard pressed tenants and leaseholders. There aren’t that many of them, and the council is unlikely to be out of pocket as the current fall in energy prices means that its costs are likely to be over recovered next year. But the hard faced Tories on the committee said No.

I would ask the Leader of the Council to look again at Wandsworth’s rent and service charge policies. It is currently proposing to impose rent increases which are not financially justified on those hard working council tenants who are most affected by the current squeeze on living standards. Why make their life even more difficult, just for the fun of it?

Council Calls In Police To Halt Peaceful Pay2Play Protest

 By our man in Battersea Park

Wednesday seemed like the perfect day to go to Battersea Park to continue our ‘No pay to play’ campaign. It was national ‘Playday’ – a celebration of the child’s right to play – so what better time to remind everybody that the Tory council in Wandsworth are still hell-bent on charging children £2.50 to use the adventure playground in the park. It was of course an added bonus for us that the council’s Play and Community Services department (the very people trying to charge the children and certainly a department in the running for hypocrites of the year award) had arranged an event right next to the adventure playground in honour of the day.

The morning got off to a wonderful start and with the sun beaming, posters printed, flyers made, petitions on clipboards, drinks and snacks ready, Jack and I set off to the park (poor young Jack carrying the pasting table full of posters and flyers all the way there…and back). We arrived just before twelve midday, I went to the Parks Office (I had been advised to do this) to let them know we were there and what we planned on doing, the lovely lady there said it was fine so we set up our beautiful stall.

Unfortunately, the people from the council weren’t too pleased about this, Kathy Tracey – Cabinet Member for Education – was due any minute and they felt it wasn’t really the look they were going for, so they decided the best course of action was to call the police. In fact not only did they call the police but they told them there was a ‘group protest’ taking place without stating any numbers. Next thing we knew three police cars turned up and they had us surrounded…  I explained to them they were just in time as we were about to start kicking bins over!

After what was a lot of fussing I am now the proud owner of a Wandsworth Parks Constabulary Bye-laws Handbook, which basically points out that you cannot to anything, and I mean anything, for example “no person shall….take part in any public assemblage in any park, garden or open space” – which seems a little unfair, no more family picnics I’m afraid! Also “no person shall… enter in to any public discussion or cause” and “no person shall distribute any bill, placard, or other printed or written matter” – I’m afraid with their mighty bye-laws handbook they had us beat. But we weren’t going to let that stop us; there is certainly nothing about what you can wear…

 By this point a couple of the Women of Wandsworth mums had joined us, we were forced to take down the table and pack up but then the police left so we all put posters on our backs, and engaged in public discussion (i.e. we went round collecting signatures pointing at Kathy Tracey, saying it was all her fault and they called the police on us for trying to demonstrate) Everybody was on our side, we got over 100 signatures and really got up some noses, so all in all a good day I’d say – we were just lucky to get out of there without being kettled!

For more information on ‘No pay to play’ please visit http://wesaynopay2play.com

Battersea Park Playground – Tories Threaten Cuts And May Still Bring In Charges

Despite a retreat last week over charges for children to use Battersea Park Adventure Playground, the plans are not dead yet. In an interview with the Wandsworth Guardian Kathy Tracey, the council’s children’s services spokeswoman, said the Tories may still introduce a fee to use the specialist playground.

She said a survey will be carried out over the summer months asking users what cost-cutting measures they approved of, before a report is published in November. Coun Tracey added that one possible way to save cash would be to remove some of the more expensive equipment, which needs staffing. She added: “If they want to maintain the sort of provision that’s there, we have to find a mechanism for charging for it.”

Labour’s Cllr. Andy Gibbons said ‘Coming just days before the Thamesfield by-election the Tories’ announcement of a retreat on playground charges now looks like a cynical attempt to hide an unpopular and damaging policy, only to bring it back later. We must keep the pressure up to make sure that these proposals are ruled out completely.’

Read the full story here:

http://www.wandsworthguardian.co.uk/news/9124540.Playground_fee__could_still_be_introduced/

WANDSWORTH BACKS DOWN ON CHARGING FOR ADVENTURE PLAYGROUND

Wandsworth Borough Council made a decision on 28 February at its Executive Committee to introduce a charge of £2.50 per child for entry to Battersea Adventure Playground.  This was due to come into effect on 2 July 2011.  

A letter before claim threatening to issue judicial review proceedings was sent on behalf of five families, arguing that the decision was unlawful: first on grounds that there was a failure to consult with local residents about the scheme; second that the council had failed to have regard to its equalities duties.  Ms Saimo Chahal of Bindmans law firm argued that the initial Equality Impact Assessment was superficial, flawed and reaches conclusions which are unreasonable.  Whilst the council recognise that 45% of users are from the BME community, the Equality Impact Assessment goes on to state that the charging is not expected to have any adverse impact on BME users. Third it was argued that the , the council have failed to have any regard to the fact that the parents and children who would be disadvantaged by the proposed charging were all from a socio economic group which could not afford to pay for the charges, whilst the council have proceeded on the basis that the proposal will not have any impact on  lower income families.  The conclusions were irrational. Finally, it was also argued that there was a lack of transparency in the procedure and processes involved in reaching the decision to charge for the Adventure Playground. The council were given until 4pm on 28 June to respond.

 The council backs down

The council has responded, agreeing not to implement the pilot scheme on 2 July. Saimo Chahal, Partner at Bindmans LLP acting for the families said: “The council had pushed through this decision with a total disregard for  the views of children and parents in the Borough.  Their assessment of the impact of the charges was superficial and flawed, showing a complete lack of understanding about why the playground played such a pivotal role in the lives of children in the borough and why play is so important for the most deprived children in the borough.  Furthermore the Council ignored evidence showing that in the borough 26% of children under 16 live in poverty and children in some age groups have a higher than average level of obesity.   The decision verged on the irrational.   I am very pleased indeed that the council has decided to review its decision and not to implement the charges.  This is a very sensible decision.”

Local resident Sojourner Jones said: “Today’s decision by the council not to implement the charge to use the adventure playground at Battersea Park is without a doubt a victory for common sense. Whilst the £2.50 the council intended to charge is less than many pay for a coffee in a trendy café bar, for many families in the borough, with two, three or four children it would  have meant the difference between a summer spent cooped up indoors and one spent out in the fresh air. Whilst I fully appreciate local authorities such as ours have to make cuts in line with government directives, I am really pleased that my council has decided that taxing children to play would have been a step too far.”

Read the Evening Standard’s story here:

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23965866-councils-u-turn-on-pound-250-park-fee.do

 

Pay2play – No Way

Wandsworth’s Tory Councillors are to charge £2.50 for kids to play in the Adventure Playground in Battersea Park.  Almost 12,700 children in the borough, nearly a third, live in poverty. There is also a higher than average rate of child obesity – yet the charge will hit the poorest families hardest.

Read more: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/2011/05/13/tories-blasted-for-charging-kids-to-use-public-playground-115875-23126656/#ixzz1MGxzFWYF

Sign the petition against the charges here: http://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/committ/mgePetitionlistDisplay.aspx

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