CAMDEN COUNCIL GOING BEGGING TO THE BANKERS

Thursday, 27th January 2011

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Published: 27th January, 2011
EXCLUSIVE by RICHARD OSLEY

THE Town Hall is set to plead with wealthy bankers and lawyers in Hampstead, Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill to use part of their annual bonuses to bail out council services.

In an open appeal to the borough’s richest residents, they will argue that a fraction of their income from bonuses could save libraries or even kickstart overdue school repairs.

Dismissing concerns over being seen to be sending out a begging bowl, Labour’s finance chief Councillor Theo Blackwell said last night (Wednesday): “This is not the time to be precious. We are facing the gravest financial situation we have ever faced.”

Sceptics described the idea of asking for donations as a “PR stunt” and “a Band Aid solution”.

The scheme, in its early stages of discussion among the Labour group, would be completely voluntary and rely entirely on the generosity of high-salary residents. 

Councillors will point out that Camden is the fourth most wealthy borough in the country, in terms of who is registered as living here, and contrast that with the pyramid of services under threat.

It may work by those willing to help donating to a dedicated charity set up by the council or with direct appeal letters to those thought best placed to offer support. The idea is to protect the anony­mity of donors where required.

Cllr Blackwell said: “People would say we were absurd if they looked back on this time and our attempts to tackle the crisis and saw we had not made overtures to people living here. 

“It’s not a lecture for them, we are not hectoring them – we are just looking for goodwill. There is a large resident banking community, here but the people who are losing out in public service cuts, the people losing play services and luncheon clubs, played no part in the banks or the mortgage bubble.”

If the scheme succeeds, Cllr Blackwell said the first beneficiary would be libraries threatened with closure. Money could be used to set up community-run branches, although the idea of staffing libraries with volunteers was warned against by regular users this week. (click here for related article)

Rough calculations made by Labour suggest a figure of 5p in the pound among Camden’s 100 top-earning bankers and lawyers’ bonuses this year would immediately conjure up nearly £500,000 to spend on libraries.

The idea would represent a start in impressing the more rebellious backbench Labour councillors who have become twitchy over the party’s response to £100m worth of public spending cuts ordered by government. There is a worry inside the group that the party locally is being blamed for cuts they say are generated at Westminster.

At a private meeting of members on Saturday, cabinet members were urged to draw up a “Plan B” budget which would involve departing from a freeze on council tax and raising revenue that way. One member believes a  5 per cent rise could be introduced to save services, although Cllr Blackwell said the idea would breach local government law.

Labour leisure chief Councillor Tulip Siddiq extended the idea of the voluntary levy.

“We want to generate a culture of giving,” she said. “It doesn’t always have to be money, people can help, whatever their social or economic backgrounds. Some people can volunteer their time. None of us campaigned to be Labour councillors so we could make cuts. Now we are doing everything we can to keep services running.”

But opposition parties only offered lukewarm praise for the idea as details emerged yesterday. 

Councillor Keith Moffitt, leader of the Lib Dem opposition, said: “I told the council that they need to be more imaginative, but this sounds more wacky than imaginative. It would be a one-off way of raising revenue but not a structural response to having less money. It’s a Band Aid solution, a political gesture.”

The idea has strands of David Cameron’s “Big Society” principles but Tory group leader Councillor Andrew Mennear said: “This sounds like a PR stunt riding on the theme of bankers’ bonuses. There is a strain of a good idea, but how would it work in practice? The council should be working on developing a strategy that will work rather than looking for cheap PR wins like this.”

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