The passing of the controversial 2019-20 budget by Kingston Council (RBK) last week generated lively debate and prompted its proponents to defend their decisions amid criticism.

One of the chief architects of the budget was RBK Council Leader Liz Green (Liberal Democrats), who has highlighted the strain RBK's finances are under at present.

Speaking to the Surrey Comet one rain-soaked afternoon the week the budget passed, Cllr Green defended its details, which included a 4.99 per cent rise in council tax, and emphasised the austere context in which it was made.

"This budget, the whole process, has been very tough because of the overarching financial situation of local government as a whole and in Kingston specifically...we've had some difficult decisions to make and you've just got to weight things in your own, fair way: which services are needed more.

"My overarching approach has been tough, but fair," Cllr Green said.

It's a stance taken by RBK Council amid the context that, according to Local Government Association (LGA), between 2010 and 2020 councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 the Government previously provided for services.

Discussing this squeeze on the budget further, the Council Leader became more direct: "Government does not fund it enough, basically. It doesn't fund local government enough, as a whole."

Is she referring to the current lot i.e. the Conservatives, who have formed the UK's national governments (including with Cllr Green's Lib Dems) since 2010?

Cllr Green responded: "It is the current lot...when we were in coalition and there were some austerity measures, I think some initial elements of it were not a bad thing. I'm not someone who bangs on about austerity being a good thing like a Conservative might, but it wasn't bad. It made us look at value for money much more closely than we had done as councils.

"It's just gone too far. We've got to the point where we're cutting things we really actually need to provide for people. All of our budget is in that context."

It's a context which nonetheless requires the council to spend most of its budget in providing essential support for vulnerable and needy residents in RBK, including children and the elderly.

According to a breakdown of the budget available on the Council's website, almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the entire budget will be spent directly on either adult social care or children's services.

Official RBK statistics detailed that £54.6 million was allocated for adult social care, including community housing — 40 per cent of the total budget. A further £32.1 million will go to children's services.

Surrey Comet: RBK Council are planning to build over 1,300 new homes per year in the borough, in line with development plans pushed by the Mayor of London's office. Image: Kingston's Cambridge Road EstateRBK Council are planning to build over 1,300 new homes per year in the borough, in line with development plans pushed by the Mayor of London's office. Image: Kingston's Cambridge Road Estate

Children's centres

One key point made in the debate which swirled around the budget's approval was a mooted suggestion to close four out of the eight children's centres that currently operate in RBK.

On the children's centres, Cllr Green said: "What we've done is consulted with children's centres, the users of children's centres and the wider population and the results of that consultation are being analysed ... it will come back to committee which will then make the decision about what we're going to do to make that saving that we need to make.

"The decision to close four out of eight children's centres has not been taken — that was what was being consulted on as a potential option."

Asked whether there was a chance that less or even no children's centres would have to close, Cllr Green said there was a chance, and highlighted the extra funding allocated to outreach child support.


Emissions and climate concerns in the borough

Another point of contention in RBK recently concerns carbon emissions and air quality.

The day the budget passed (February 26), a site in Kingston was listed in a Friends of the Earth survey as being among the most polluted sites in London, while one former Lib Dem councillor, Sharron Sumner, recently cited the issue on defecting from the Lib Dems to the Green Party.

In the 2017 survey, 14-16 Cromwell Road, Kingston, reported an annual mean Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution level of 74.4 ug/m3, almost twice the objective target of 40ug/m3.

Surrey Comet: A site in Kingston was listed among the most-polluted in London (see below). Image: commons.wikimedia.orgA site in Kingston was listed among the most-polluted in London (see below). Image:

Cllr Green said that plans to charge more-polluting vehicles higher parking fees and offer free parking to electric car users were the correct approach.

"The parking charges is starting's not fair because they don't affect everyone but we do not as local government have the power to do anything about it. We can only operate within the legislation that government gives us and, actually, it's about behavioural change...changing hearts and minds will make the real difference."

The RBK Council Leader did not comment on Cllr Sumner's defection, instead insisting that the council was addressing pollution and emissions in the Borough as far as it is able to.

But in the context of accelerating climate breakdown, does Green agree with other Lib Dem councils, such as that of Wiltshire, which recently voted to declare a 'climate emergency' and commit to becoming carbon neutral by 2030? The short answer is 'no'.

"My problem with the climate change emergency is when does it end? Emergency in my mind implies that it is time limited...climate change is so big we (in RBK council) can't ever allow for it to finish... I consider it an urgent problem that needs tackling," Cllr Green said, adding that the council were looking into "some carbon neutral elements" in new building developments.

Development debate

Of those developments, RBK has faced significant pushback from residents, more than 800 of whom have signed a petition titled 'Stop over-development ruining Kingston'.

She added: "It's hard in Kingston because we don't have swathes of available land...but we have to take our share," Green said regarding the requirements facing RBK to build new homes.

Cllr Green highlighted the fact that the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan effectively doubled the number of homes RBK would be required to build each year (RBK's housing target was increased from 643 new homes per year to 1,364 homes under the Mayor's Draft New London Plan).

"Once this plan is passed, we can say 'no', but we don't have the right to stop it. We can just argue our point and (the Mayor) can enforce his," Cllr Green said.