It was a small milestone moment floating on a sea of accord – Labour passed its first budget in Tower Hamlets for the first time since 2010.
Council tax will go up 4% in the borough, a decision that drew support from beyond the ruling Labour Group under mayor John Biggs and meant that a second meeting, which had become a fixture under his predecessor Lutfur Rahman, has been scrubbed from council diaries. The vote was 25-17.
Mr Biggs said: “Our borough has had a troubled past, but this vote offers real evidence that Tower Hamlets is moving forwards. Every year the previous mayor’s budget was rejected by councillors, so passing the vote with such a clear majority is a strong signal that my administration is making real progress.
“Despite huge Tory cuts, we have put together a budget that puts residents first – with extra money for cleaner streets and to tackle anti-social behaviour, decent wages for our carers, and a new investment fund to build more affordable housing.
“I have been transparent and honest about the difficult decisions that we have had to consider. I’m confident that we are protecting the services that residents value and rely on the most.”
The reduction in Government supports meant that the council had to find savings of £17million this year and it will have £59million less to spend on services by 2019. The Chancellor George Osborne has also told councils to increase tax by 2% to pay for adult social care.
However, Lutfur Rahman’s former colleagues in Tower Hamlets First criticised the cuts and called into question the mayor’s financial competence.
Opposition councillors pointed out that Mr Biggs had inherited £242million in reserves and their own proposals had argued a chunk of this should be deployed to smooth over the worst of the cuts. This alternative budget had the support of the unions, who were out in force with banners at the Town Hall in Poplar on Wednesday (February 24).
Independent Group leader Cllr Oli Rahman said: “Mayor Biggs’ cuts target the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, giving an indication that there is no place for them in ‘the new Tower Hamlets of John Biggs’. Meanwhile he wants to whack up our council tax, force vulnerable residents to pay for their incontinence laundry to save a paltry few pounds, and cut services for children with mental health problems.”
The Independent Group’s alternative budget, and that of the Conservatives, were both rejected. The Tories wanted to share back-office functions with neighbouring councils to save money.
Conservative Chris Chapman said: “Labour’s budget is a slap in the face to hard-working families who have entrusted the mayor with introducing financial probity to an authority whose reputation was dragged into the gutter. The mayor’s 4% tax rise is ridden with wasteful, ideologically-driven unjustifiable spending.”
Tower Hamlets council tax 2016-17 by band (including GLA precept)