By Louise Ridley
Lewisham and Southwark residents may face a one per cent council tax hike because of the Jean Charles de Menezes inquest.
Both councils are appealing to the government over the inquest bill, which is expected to cost at least £4 million. The inquest is happening at conference facilities at The Oval cricket ground.
The bill will have to be paid from the council’s emergency reserves, a Southwark Council spokesperson said. These are usually used to fund regeneration projects. “These reserves would then have to be replenished, and as this expense is not budgeted for, the most likely way of raising this money would be through a one per cent rise in council tax,” said the spokesperson.
Current Ministry of Justice (MoJ) funding rules state the councils in Southwark coroner’s district – Lewisham, Southwark, Lambeth and Greenwich – are responsible for the costs of the inquest, which began September.
The annual cost for the coroner’s court is usually about £1 million and is divided amongst the four boroughs. But councils have no budget allowance for cases as large as the de Menezes inquest, which has already cost £1.7 million.
The expense of the de Menezes inquest is unprecedented – a temporary coroner’s court was built at the Oval Conference Centre in Kennington to accommodate the huge international interest and media attention in the case.
The Southwark Council spokesperson said: “There was a similar need for a large venue with the Princess Diana inquest, but in that case the Ministry of Justice provided a high court. For the de Menezes inquiry, we’ve essentially had to build a court from scratch that hasn’t been budgeted for – from the chairs, to the PA system, to security.”
Appeal for financial assistance
Financial leaders from all four affected boroughs are in discussions with the MoJ and have appealed to the government for financial assistance.
But Cllr Nick Stanton, Southwark Council leader, said he was alarmed by BBC news reports of an outright refusal from the MoJ to consider alternative funding options. He said: “I have written to the MoJ seeking urgent clarification of their position following these statements. At a time when our residents are feeling the pinch of the economic downturn, we will not sit back and let them pay for this exceptional inquest.”
Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham, said: “I am very concerned about this. The inquest is clearly of interest beyond the four south London boroughs and it should be dealt with nationally.”