When you’re down, the first thing you need to do is get back on your feet. Our country has taken a battering over the last 12 months. We all know we are not alone, but we also know that we have been hit harder than most. The UK is in the worst economic crisis in 300 years. We have taken a bigger hit than any other major economy. You only have to look around, turn on the news, or talk to your friends to see that people are struggling to make ends meet. And there are tough times to come.
We all desperately want the vaccination plan to succeed and help us drive back the virus, but we have to be realistic – even in the best-case scenario, there are rocky times ahead. Families need support. Yet incredibly, the Conservatives plan the opposite: cutting vital help and increasing the tax that will hit families hardest.
At the start of the coronavirus crisis – back when the Prime Minister was boasting about shaking hands and told us it would all be over in 12 weeks – government ministers promised they would support local councils to do “whatever it takes” to fight the virus. So, that is what we have done: buying personal protective equipment; supporting the vulnerable; providing extra care.
Figures collated by the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government show that, even after receiving some extra funding from the government councils are out of pocket by over £7bn already. And despite their promise, ministers are now refusing to cover the full cost of fighting Covid. That means most councils have no choice but to make cuts to services this year.
Whilst ministers have always been able to find the cash for bumper contracts for their friends or a pay rise for Dominic Cummings, when it comes to cash-strapped councils and struggling families, and especially supporting children on free school meals, they have dragged their feet every time. Every time we go through the same ludicrous dance, and every time they are forced to back down.
The same will happen on the planned cut to Universal Credit. You simply cannot claim that we are all fighting this virus together at the same time as you are hitting millions of people with a £1,000 a year cut. The Chancellor should admit defeat on his dream of cutting Universal Credit for six million people, and save a lot of families a lot stress and worry.
He should also think again on council tax. In the autumn, the Chancellor announced that council budgets should increase by £2.2bn next year – but that he would only supply 15% of that sum, leaving local tax payers to fund the rest. So, the government are clobbering families with a £2bn tax hit by forcing councils to increase council tax by 5%. This will hit every family in the land and squeeze out almost £2bn from household budgets that are already stretched to breaking point. The timing is absolutely dreadful: we are in the deepest part of this crisis; these council tax hikes could push people under. And it doesn’t stop there.
The result of all of this is obvious. The Conservatives are forcing cuts to local services to cover the cost of tackling the pandemic, and demanding council tax rises for every family to boot. Pay more, get less. That is the Conservative plan for 2021. Local communities should not be forced to pick up the bill for another broken government promise. This is the wrong plan, at the wrong time. That’s why Labour is calling on the government to scrap this forced council tax rise by funding councils properly and I urge them to stand by their pledge to do whatever is necessary to support councils.
For council leaders like me, the bottom line is this: we are not out of the woods yet, far from it. We can all see that the government has got an awful lot wrong in this crisis, but we are all desperate to work together to beat the virus and get back to living our lives. We all accept that things will not be easy, but you cannot tell me that the best way to start is by hammering every household in the country with a tax rise.
It is Labour’s job to fight back. Over the last 12 months, this government has been forced into retreat again and again. We need to beat them back again. After the year we have had, more tax for reduced local services is not just the wrong policy, it is a slap in the face for everyone who has sacrificed so much in the national effort.
What this country needs is a bit of hope, a vision of a better future and a plan to get there. We have to come out of this crisis stronger. We have to start afresh by building a better more ambitious country where everyone has the chance to get on. That should be where we set our sights. Asking people to pay more and get less does not sound like a useful part of that vision to me.