To the sound of whooping from the council chambers, Hackney’s Labour administration passed its budget by a large majority last week.
Mayor Jules Pipe believes he has plenty to be proud of, such as freezing council tax for a fifth consecutive year, alongside a £2.5m increase in funding for Hackney’s schools. However, these are promises that the borough can ill afford.
Funding them will require additional borrowing of £12-15m annually over the next three years. Many of Labour’s proposals will be unsustainable should an incoming Conservative government at Westminster swing its axe at grants for local councils.
The blame lies squarely with Labour for squandering what may be its last year of largesse. Councillor Matthew Coggins, leader of Hackney’s Conservative group, said: “I struggle to see how the finances of this council are stable. What’s sustainable about this? What happens next? The Mayor is assuming inflation of 1 per cent when it is 3 per cent.”
Yet it is also a failing of Hackney’s opposition parties that little was done to restrain Labour.
The Conservatives stopped short of putting forward their own cuts and were rightly jeered by boisterous Labour councillors. Given the circumstances, councillor Harvey Odze’s excuses seem particularly feeble. “The main reason we do not produce a budget is we will produce a budget in May,” he said. “It’s less than two months before an election. It would give them [Labour] time to steal our ideas.”
But in the current financial environment, Hackney does not have time for a squabble over intellectual ownership.
This budget sets up debts that Hackney Council will struggle to fund as time goes on. The chickens will come home to roost sooner or later, and Mr Pipe will eventually be forced to make swingeing cuts that he will doubtless attempt to pin on the Conservatives. Meanwhile, the Tories have too little support in the borough to pass a budget to reduce dependency on aid from our bankrupt state – yet they will not win that support with a showing like this.
The people of Hackney deserve better than a profligate council and a gutless opposition.