Council budget approved amid political turmoil

Enfield Civic Centre
Enfield Civic Centre

Budget passed by councillors following heated debate and controversy over resignations, reports Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter, and James Cracknell

Councillors clashed over pay packets and debt levels during a debate on Enfield Council’s budget.

Tempers flared as members of opposition group Community First called for a £36,000-a-year increase in councillor allowances and a £46,000-a-year cabinet support officer role to be scrapped.

The budget for the coming financial year includes a total tax rise of nearly 5% – made up of a 1.99% increase in core council tax plus a 3% rise in a levy used to fund adult social care – and was approved by the Labour administration during a full council meeting on Tuesday.

Coming on top of a 9.5% hike in the share of council tax raised by the Greater London Authority, it will push band D bills up by almost £100 over the coming financial year.

Cabinet member for finance Mary Maguire said the budget was designed to look after the most vulnerable in the borough – and would have been in surplus if the council had not faced extra Covid-19 costs that were not covered by the government.

A £10.3m “gap” in pandemic-related expenditure for the year ahead is set to be partly met by withdrawing £3.2m from council reserves.

The budget also includes plans to invest £560,000 in adults and children’s services, including £260,000 for extra social workers.

Cllr Maguire told the meeting: “We are investing in our borough, have ambitions plans for our borough and have a budget that puts Enfield first.”

But there was criticism from former Labour councillor Dino Lemonides, who now represents Community First, as he called the extra money being spent on councillor allowances and a new support officer “a slap in the face to the hard-working, honest people who need our support”.

The increase in the number of posts eligible for special responsibility allowances – pay for duties over and above ward councillor roles – followed the creation of new committees last summer.

Cllr Lemonides added: “Why are we paying a support officer a starting salary more than a nurse, teacher, or policeman or woman would earn when they embark on their career? What possible skills can this person bring to the council?

Leader Nesil Caliskan hit back, describing the Community First amendments as “a distraction – from a collection of misfit councillors who are exposing themselves to be pretty right-wing”.

She added: “Unless we want councillors to only be those who are retired and those who are very wealthy, it is utterly ridiculous to suggest councillors should not receive an allowance – including a special responsibility allowance.”

The leader claimed the proposal to delete the support officer role was “outrageous” and would go against trade union principles.

The Conservatives and Community First also took aim at council debt levels and warned over rising borrowing costs, which amount to £18million per year after the Labour-run authority’s total debt surpassed £1billion.

Out of the £2.75bn in future capital investment now being planned for the next ten years, £1.3bn is forecast to come from council borrowing – pushing total debt well beyond £2bn.

Much of the existing and forecast borrowing relates to Meridian Water, where 10,000 homes are due to be built. On top of the £170m spent by the council on land acquisition to date, another £815m is forecast for the project over the next decade. Elsewhere, £646m is due to be invested by the council on the redevelopment of the Joyce and Snells estates in Angel Edmonton.

Tory leader Joanne Laban accused the Labour administration of wasting money and “raiding the pockets of hardworking people at a time when they are struggling”.

She claimed the council had spent “over £200,000 drafting two strategies last year” and would have had more money if it had hit its recycling target.

“The Labour administration would not be paying as much as £8m from this budget if it had not got itself into so much debt with nothing to show for it,” the Conservative group leader added.

But Cllr Caliskan claimed the investment and borrowing would make Enfield a “fantastic borough” and “improve the great Enfield we already have”.

The council leader said: “Our budget is a clear message to our residents in Enfield that this Labour council will be there for them, making sure our key services are delivered and that we are investing in the borough, so that the Enfield we know is a good place to grow up in, to grow old in and to live and work in.”

Labour councillors successfully voted down the Community First proposals, which were supported by both opposition groups, and passed the 2021/22 budgets without any amendments.

Community First’s ranks now number five after this week’s defection from Labour of Anne Brown while another councillor, Bernadette Lappage, has resigned from the council entirely.

Cllr Lappage did not attend last night’s budget meeting but a statement read on her behalf stated: “From the time I was first elected in 1998 I have worked hard, and to the best of my ability, to get the best results for any resident who has asked for my help.”