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Cllr Rachael Robathan is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Westminster City Council.
It took Labour 58 years to win control of Westminster City Council but only ten months to break key election pledges and vote themselves a whopping pay increase of up to 45 per cent.
Westminster City Council’s new Labour administration’s first budget, delivered last week, was billed as a historic moment and a major step towards delivering on their stated aim of a Fairer Westminster. Yet we have seen an outcry from people disappointed and frankly shocked by the tone-deaf measures announced. While so many of our residents are struggling in the face of the Cost of Living crisis, Westminster’s new Labour administration waved through a massive pay increase for themselves of up to 45 per cent for Cabinet Members. Whether or not they believe this is justified – and we would argue it certainly isn’t – it beggars belief that they could possibly think it fair at a time when so many people are worried about their bills and simply can’t understand Councillors nodding through a pay rise for themselves of that proportion. Even more shocking was that every single Labour Councillor voted for this – not even any abstentions. They must know this is wrong and the very opposite of a Fairer Westminster. Did they really think residents wouldn’t notice?
In the 12 years in which I have had the great honour of serving as a Westminster City Councillor, Cabinet Member and Leader, I never once heard the Labour Party claim that our Cabinet Member allowances were too low – certainly not by 45 per cent – until they came to power. In opposition, they also called for other allowances to be scrapped. Indeed, not once but three times they tabled a formal amendment to our budgets calling for all deputy Cabinet Member allowances to be stopped. You would assume that would be a pretty clear sign of what they’d do once in power. But not only have they failed to do this now they’re in possession of these roles themselves – they’ve actually voted through a rise of 15 per cent. Other measures they called for have also been forgotten. Their defence was that these are ‘modest’ increases. How can they possibly say that?
But that’s not the only thing which has concerned people. This comes as they raise council rents for our poorest residents by seven per cent – the maximum allowed under the Government imposed cap. It’s true that last year my administration raised Council rents, although not by as much as this, but the outcry from Labour councillors was ferocious. Council tenants seeing their outrage must have assumed this wouldn’t happen under Labour – but they’re now seeing an even bigger increase.
They’ve also gone back on their key pledge in the election to ‘Freeze Council Tax’ until 2024, having now decided to raise it by two per cent to fund adult social care. Perhaps justified – but not what they led our residents to believe during the election campaign and another bill at a time when people can least afford it. Of course, even more painful is the nine per cent increase on the part of our Council tax bills levied by the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan – that’s over 60 per cent in the last seven years.
This isn’t confined to Westminster. Wandsworth was another key flagship Conservative London borough which fell to Labour last May. In both Westminster and Wandsworth residents have long been used to receiving excellent services for the lowest Council tax in the country. In both, Labour promised during the election to uphold that trend – in Wandsworth they even promised to cut Council tax – but in less than a year those promises have been forgotten. This is a deeply worrying sign of what is to come under these Labour administrations.
However, by far the most concerning element of Westminster’s budget for the long term future of our City is the Labour administration’s decision to cut the delivery of new key worker affordable rent homes in favour of social rent. We all agree across the political divide that we need more social rent homes in Westminster for the poorest in society, which is why I – and my predecessor Nickie Aiken – launched the biggest housing development programmes for decades. But we also desperately need affordable rent homes – homes at a significant discount to market rent and aimed at lower income key workers who don’t qualify for social rent homes and would otherwise have no hope of getting a home in our City.
It’s even more important when you consider that while almost 25 per cent of the City’s existing total housing stock is social rent, only two per cent is key worker affordable rent. Already the new administration has slashed plans for these homes, with plans inherited from us for 200 new key worker homes cut back to 49 as a start. On Ebury Bridge, a key council regeneration scheme in the south of the City, there will now be no new key worker homes. Teachers, nurses, charity workers, police, fire workers – these people have two things in common, they serve the people of Westminster and Labour’s new housing policy tells them we don’t want them to live in the City they serve. How can that possibly be right or fair?
It’s not a key worker policy, it’s an elbow in the ribs policy.