Coronavirus has had a devastating impact in every part of our country, but in the face of this unimaginably difficult time it’s so inspiring to see the way communities have come together to support each other. In my own borough of Waltham Forest we are incredibly proud of the work done by key workers – from health and social care staff to refuse workers and council officers, working round the clock to keep us safe and the lights on.
Local government is at the frontline of fighting this pandemic. While we rightly recognise the dedication and sacrifice of NHS staff, large parts of the healthcare system – including most of the social care sector – are under the responsibility of local councils. And our incredible social care staff have faced impossible challenges working under Covid-19.
In Waltham Forest we set up our community help network to deliver food and medicine parcels, and make support calls for thousands of vulnerable residents. We were quickly flooded with offers of support from the community, with over 4,000 volunteers putting themselves forward to help. It’s just one example of how local councils across the country have worked with our communities to step up during this crisis.
We ensured that all the borough’s rough sleepers were sheltered in temporary hotel accommodation at the start of the pandemic to protect them from the virus, and we are proud that all of them in Waltham Forest have been successfully moved into secure, long-term accommodation. Even despite the impact of Covid-19, we have been able to use these terrible circumstances as a unique opportunity to help rough sleepers achieve real, meaningful life changes – including getting access to health and GP services and addiction support for those who need it.
Other support services have also seen a huge increase in pressure and demand, sadly including services such as those tackling domestic violence. Councils have had to reinvent the way we do things overnight: in Waltham Forest the youth offending service team shifted to making home visits, conducting over 1,000 in-person visits to the homes of at-risk and vulnerable young people.
But we know that delivering all this extra help and support isn’t free, and it comes at the same time as major losses of income caused by coronavirus – including from closed leisure facilities, decreases in tourism revenue, and a significant fall in the council tax base as more and more residents require financial support. And of course this follows a decade of Tory austerity, which has already cut to the bone. Waltham Forest has lost half of our central government funding since 2010, and councils like Northamptonshire teetered on the brink of bankruptcy even before coronavirus.
At the start of the crisis, the now infamous Robert Jenrick promised that local government would have everything they need, and encouraged councils to spend accordingly – only to try to renege on their word. After intensive lobbying from groups like Local Government Association Labour group, London Councils and local councils across the country, the government finally committed to extra funding. Yet in Waltham Forest this barely covers half the funding gap caused by the virus. Local government now faces a £6bn funding gap during the most serious crisis we have faced for generations.
But the government in Westminster is expecting councils to do more, not less. With Boris Johnson now clearly unwilling to implement a national lockdown and likening it to the ‘nuclear’ option, it’s increasingly clear the responsibility of preventing a second wave will be through local lockdowns borne by local government. With these huge extra responsibilities, the government needs to do more than fund councils – it needs to be willing to respect and trust them too, and give us the powers we need to support our communities.
Councils need powers of general competence, and we need more of the resources held nationally and delivered by bodies such as job centres and health partners to be transferred to councils – guided by the people in local government who have experience of, and are dedicated to, delivering services for the people who need them most.
The new Labour frontbench has made a strong start in prioritising the work of local government, with Keir Starmer regularly in touch with Labour council leaders and Steve Reed holding the government’s feet to the fire on council funding. Labour is in power across the country – not only in Wales and devolved city regions but in local authorities up and down the UK – and we need the whole labour movement to make the argument for local government.
An effective response to the most urgent public health crisis of our times cannot be run on a shoestring or out of an office in Whitehall. Councils are proud to play a leading role but we urgently need the funding and resources to do so. As a great man and former mayor of Stepney once said: “We have a great opportunity to set things right. Let us seize it.”