Councillors clash in heated debate on capital spending cuts

Labour blames the government for “crashing the economy” but Tories say the administration has been “reckless” with council finances, reports James Cracknell

Labour's cabinet member for finance Tim Leaver (inset left) clashed with Tory councillor Julian Sampson (inset right)
Labour’s finance chief Tim Leaver (left) clashed with Tory councillor Julian Sampson (right) at Enfield Civic Centre

Labour and Conservative councillors exchanged insults this week as they blamed each other for a series of cuts to capital investment in Enfield.

Enfield Council had recently announced cuts of £267m to future projects as the civic centre seeks to curb mounting borrowing costs – reducing its ten-year investment programme from £1.8billion down to £1.5bn.

At a full council meeting on Wednesday (22nd), the Labour administration blamed the Conservative government for “crashing the economy” and for causing inflation and interest rates to soar, making capital projects more expensive to finance.

But the Tories in turn blamed “Vladimir Putin” for the struggling economy and said Labour councillors had been “reckless” by borrowing so much, with Enfield residents “now paying the price”.

A 29-page capital strategy up to the year 2034 was published earlier this month and includes a number of cuts to previously planned spending, such as to housing and highways, while moving several projects to “pipeline” – meaning they won’t be funded without an affordable business case to support them.

The cuts include £29.2m taken from the Meridian Water housing zone budget, £28.4m removed from highways maintenance and improvements, £16.3m from the Energetik district heating network, and £15m from the next phase of the Montagu Industrial Estate regeneration scheme.

Introducing the new version of the council’s capital strategy, Labour’s cabinet member for finance Tim Leaver said: “We think long-term for this borough, not just short-term […] wider economic circumstances have necessitated that we review our capital strategy to ensure it remains prudent and affordable – this report ensures it does both.

“We aim to invest £1.5billion in Enfield over the next ten years. We are clearly ambitious, but our plans must be affordable.”

Tory councillor Julian Sampson responded: “This comes as a reality check for all of us in the chamber. The strategy of ‘borrowing to invest’ was always subject to interest rate rises and that risk has now crystallised – and it is something residents are now paying for.

“He calls it a ‘pipeline’, I call it a tin can being kicked down the road.”

Cllr Sampson then introduced a metaphor to illustrate slashed spending, comparing it to a “horror movie” and describing Labour’s finance boss as “Leaver the cleaver”.

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Another Tory councillor, Reece Fox, was also scathing. He said: “Labour has made a lot of manifesto plans that they simply don’t have the money for […] My inbox is full of residents complaining about potholes and these decisions will make that worse.”

Deputy council leader Ergin Erbil put the blame for the cuts back on the Conservatives and the government. He said: “While comedians laugh, real families feel the full brute force created by this government.

“Sunak and his mates have bankrupted councils up and down the country – and it is not a laughing matter. But despite these financial difficulties, caused by the Tories, we are investing in this borough.

“Come the next local election, we will see who is laughing.”

Joanne Laban, who was the leader of the Tory opposition group at Enfield Civic Centre until 2022, said: “I have spent many an hour in this chamber and a recurring theme has been the council borrowing too much – and what happens when interest rates rise. Well, now we know. And I’m afraid to say that I told you so.”

Cllr Laban provoked howls of derision from councillors sat opposite her, however, when she claimed that “a compassionate Conservative government” had “delivered”.

Rick Jewell, Labour’s cabinet member for the environment, responded: “This debate is a farce. The government blows a hole in the boat and they blame us for letting it sink.”

Cllr Jewell added: “There won’t be any tin cans being kicked down the road because my street cleaning team will pick them up straight away.”

Edward Smith explained that the jokes being made by Conservative councillors reflected the “relief” they felt that the council’s borrowing was being reduced. He warned: “We fear that reckless borrowing will throw the council off a cliff. It [the cuts] need to go further, but at least it’s a start.

“We wouldn’t be in this situation if they hadn’t been so reckless. We warned you that something would happen and that there was a need to be more prudent. Now the chickens have come home to roost.”

Lee Chamberlain, another Tory, said: “There will be a firesale – it’s going to be horrific.”

Council leader Nesil Caliskan wrapped up the debate by accusing the Conservatives of hypocrisy. She said: “What they haven’t told us is what their capital spending plan would look like. They have opposed every bit of long-term spending that this borough deserves – they always vote against it – and now they have the audacity to ask us why we are not delivering the things they have voted against in the first place.

“There are things they could have critiqued, but instead they have chosen to stand up and defend an economically illiterate government.”

At the end of the debate, the capital spending strategy was formally adopted thanks to votes from the Labour majority in the chamber.

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