Leader of 'Corbyn council' is 'proud' of his first year - as LGA report criticises finances
PUBLISHED: 07:00 07 June 2019
It's Tuesday evening, and Cllr Joseph Ejiofor is holding court in his office in Wood Green.
He's telling the story of how, a little superstitiously, he'd decided not to watch Spurs' Champions League game on Saturday for fear of jinxing it. Keys in hand, coat on, he saw the first minute before leaving the house. Naturally, in that time, Liverpool scored.
"Seriously, let me see the first minute! How can that hurt?"
By the time we meet, it's been a long day of meetings for the leader, who has only had chance to sneak a few sandwiches and cups of tea and coffee in. It's a few days since the LGA Peer Challenge report was published. In it, the group of fellow councillors and chief executives from around the UK said Haringey needed to make "significant savings" in 2020/2021 - otherwise, Haringey will face a "precarious future for the council and its services".
Speaking to the Ham&High, Cllr Ejiofor says further cuts are needed but puts part of the blame on the previous, Labour, administration.
"The biggest legacy was that we froze council tax for nine years, and its base is substantially lower than it should be," he says. "A number of us on the council were urging them to raise tax by the minimum, and it would have made a substantial difference to where we're at now.
"It's not going to be easy. Some of the things where we weren't going to take money out, like libraries, are important commitments for us to keep - but we need to balance our books."
He hopes building council houses will reduce the "high spend" on emergency and temporary accommodation, but says the council is reluctant to spend its reserves as other authorities have been.
Officers, and new council finance chief Cllr Charles Adje, are working on a plan to improve the council's budget and finances. "I think it was a good thing to get all my council colleagues focused on what it takes to be a responsible, prudent authority without losing our 'Labourism'," Cllr Ejiofor tells us.
He pauses, before repeating a line council leaders have been resigned to up and down the country since 2010. "We're not naive. We understand that we have to balance our books which means taking some difficult decisions. We are prepared to do that."
Dubbed Britain's "first Corbyn council" after a surge of Momentum-backed candidates entered office in 2017, Haringey has made a series of decisions that show a leftward turn. It will spend £1billion building new council homes, has extended its council tax reduction scheme and is insourcing services.
Yet its failure to communicate its wealth creation strategy has been another area of weakness, according to the LGA report.
Cllr Adje has taken on the insourcing and wealth creation brief from departing Cllr Noah Tucker, and the leader wants to step up the pace.
"The more we build up our own workforce, the more we can do. Like many councils, our employee and knowledge base has been hollowed out. We are looking to employ more local people where we can, to bring money back into the local economy.
"Back in the day, the only issue the council was concerned with was spending the minimum amount to deliver any service. All too often that money came out of the council, bounced off the High Road and ended up in the home counties.
"We want to see it rattle from this business, to that supplier, to that employee back to that shop. Because that is what builds the economic base in the borough."
The last 12 months have been turbulent. Three cabinet members have left, and Cllr Ejiofor reshuffled it again last month.
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As he enters his second year, he emphasises assembling a cabinet team that can "work together".
"Anyone who falls out with any of their friends always has some regrets. When I appointed them, they were friends of mine. Many of them still are now. People might disagree with me, but I have no regrets over the decisions I took. I'd do the same again.
"But we're at a situation where I need to deliver for the people of Haringey."
He says he and former leadership rival Zena Brabazon are a "year older, and a year wiser". She was recently elected deputy leader, and appointed education chief. She was one of those sacked on New Year's Eve, and lost to Cllr Ejiofor in last year's leadership poll. "She obviously has the confidence of those who elected her as deputy leader," says Cllr Ejiofor. "I'm sure we'll work constructively to deliver the manifesto."
One of the previous big policy disagreements between Cllr Ejiofor and his new deputy was over plans to build social housing near Fortismere School.
The council is still doing work on the project, which would free up funds for the school to refurbish part of its sixth form block. But Cllr Brabazon being opposed to it before will not necessarily halt the project going ahead, he says.
In the west of the borough, he says his focus for Muswell Hill and Crouch End will be their high streets.
"One of [Cllr Adje]'s roles is to develop the high streets in both areas," he says. "We need to be building a unique high street offer. Another of the big things in Crouch End is Liveable Neighbourhoods - what we're doing to make walking and cycling easier.
"People might think it's a sectional interest; [but] it's a core interest for us. I don't want any resident to feel the council isn't listening to them."
The borough, like many in London, has wards at both ends of the deprivation index. Running a council that benefits both is a "challenge," the leader admits. "It's like a microcosm of the global world. Everyone has to live together.
"Some boroughs have a large disparity and they govern on behalf of some people and ignore the rest. We have to look at what is best for everybody."
In last year's election, much of Labour's presence in the west of Haringey was swept away in a Lib Dem landslide. In the European elections, they topped the poll, beating Labour.
In Cllr Ejiofor's mind, it reinforces his belief the party should back a second referendum and campaign for remain. He also believes the nation will go to the polls again later this year in a general election.
"I've been comfortable with our Brexit position, though I thought our policy wasn't to have a Brexit policy. It enabled a party that represents the most leave and remain parts of the country to step away from the core problem of Brexit, which is that it's undeliverable. People were sold a lie.
"The position will have to be clarified by the time of the general election this year. If Labour doesn't get off the fence, we'll be blown away like the Tories."
Asked by the Ham&High, he rates his first year in the job as "seven-and-a-half" out of 10.
Looking forward, he's excited about starting work on the first council house building scheme in July, and an application for 500 homes set to go to planning this year.
And a holiday.