The Government’s response to the coronavirus crisis will quite rightly be judged by the historians and will focus on the human cost of the pandemic:
- confused messaging;
- delays to lockdown;
- the farcical distribution of PPE.
All will be in the spotlight, as will the Government’s abysmal response to the crisis in our care homes; which continues to unravel.
Adding to these existing farces will be a new one. Remember that Britain was going to have the World’s best track and trace mechanism in place on 1st June to allow our children to go back to work safely? Well it won’t be. The end of June is the earliest date that is possible but given the real problems with the app; traing and suitably of many of the trackers the end of June would be a miracle.
It is doubtful that local government finance will take centre stage in the history books but the back tracking on early “commitments” by the Government and specifically the Treasury will have a devastating impact on the economy and communities for decades to come.
Remember that we were told by Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State at the Ministry of Communities, Housing and Local Government that the Government would do “whatever it takes”, to support councils. That position has changed at least three times since then but A PROMISE IS A PROMISE! I have no doubt that Councils up and down England will resort to Judicial Reviews if are costs are not me in full. But how much we have paid out is not, for most councils the biggest problem.
Lost income is the biggest worry to councils. Many of our sources of income are threatened. Businesses will not be able to pay their business rate. Many people who have been furloughed or had big reductions in their income have resolved when faced with the idea of paying council tax or feeding their kids decide to feed their kids. Our fees for planning applications, parking, festivals, use of building, registration fees for weddings etc have all been hit badly and will not return to normal for many months. What is lost is lost. People will not come and park twice as much as before to make up for our deficit.
So ad up the loss of income to increased expenditure most on health & social care but also on a range of other actions caused by the pandemic and then add in other factors such the inability to make planned in year cuts and you have a toxic brew of problems. Council finances are different than those of the Government. We cannot legally overspend our budget. In September or October there is not a council in England that will not be having meetings to introduce big cuts unless the Government gives us the cash promised by Jenrick. This is what the Independent had to say:
I welcome the additional cash that the Government has awarded the sector, but there is no doubt that it wasn’t enough, far from it. The latest tranche of £1.6 billion was also paid for by reducing payments to urban areas with high levels of deprivation. The debate shouldn’t be about how much of the cake we should be getting, but that the cake just isn’t big enough.
The financial issues which we are facing are not new ones. They are ongoing problems which have been exacerbated by the shortfalls highlighted above:
- the crisis in adult social care;
- the underfunding of children services;
- failure to invest in public transport;
- massive backlog in highway maintenance;
- caring for our green and public spaces;
- the endless additional burdens pushed down from Government that are not being properly funded like tackling homelessness;
…to name just a few!
The response to the pandemic from councils has been good beyond belief. I am proudest, of course for the work that is being by Lib Dem Councils and councillors but great work is being done by councils led by people of all political persuasions. The stories that I am hearing from up and down the country of the great work that Liberal Democrat councils and councillors are doing in their communities has made me extremely proud of being a member of the Liberal Democrat local government family.
From those councillors who are coordinating food deliveries in rural communities from their homes, as they are shielding, those who are ensuring that as many of their local businesses access the Government business support scheme, and the campaigns that you are running to highlight the local businesses in your communities who have been forgotten by the Government and aren’t being helped.
In addition to this, the work with foodbanks, community and faith groups to reach out to the isolated, work with schools, parents and teachers about ensuring our schools are safe for the return of pupils – the list is as long as my arm. Not forgetting the thousands of people phoned and spoken to; checking that they are OK and if they need anything. These stories are truly inspiring. Yet I fear that councils will become the excuse for government failures.
I can almost hear now the complaints about tracking and tracing being our fault; about us wasting money in the crisis; about us delaying the return of children to school for political reasons etc, etc, etc. This will not be true but this tacky, tatty government will want to divert attention from their own failings. If you think that I am being harsh on the Government you should hear what Tory Councillors are saying inside confidential meetings and briefing sessions!
I’ve always been proud of being a councillor. It’s my way of serving the community and being grateful for the tremendous start I have had with good parents; state schooling and state health services. I hope that you too will recognise the good work being done by most councillors next time you hear people taking a cheap shot at us for not doing what they want when they want it.