At the start of the pandemic, the government called for councils to do “whatever it takes” and promised to foot the bill. I would imagine the Secretary of State regrets those words nearly as much as he regrets sitting beside Richard Desmond at that infamous dinner last year. But the story that has not been told enough is the consequences already being felt by councils, which have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep people safe from the virus and have been left with holes in their budget as a result.
Labour councils up and down the country acted swiftly to protect their residents. In my own borough of Islington, we immediately set up our We Are Islington helpline, which initially contacted those who were shielding to make sure they had all the help they needed. It then evolved into a one-stop shop where local people could call up and access food, medicine, advice or financial support for themselves or their loved ones. Labour in local government also used grants to give the least well-off residents money off their council tax bill and offered rent holidays to the smallest businesses.
In Islington, we have also continued to provide free school meals for all eligible children, including during school holidays, distributed 3,000 laptops to families to assist with remote learning and stepped in where the government failed to distribute vital personal protective equipment across the borough. Clearly, this all comes at a cost. At the same time, councils have been hit with the double whammy of seeing their income dramatically fall through drops in parking revenue, the closure of leisure services and the aforementioned commercial rent holiday. But Labour councils everywhere have stepped up because local people needed us.
Since the government told us it would fund us to do “whatever it takes”, we have seen a series of backtracks, empty promises and partial funding. We have seen a drip-drip of government announcements that have barely touched the surface of the cash needed – gaslighting from the government about how councils could not expect funding for everything they had spent, whilst billions have gone to private companies that have repeatedly failed to deliver but just happen to be run by Tory donors.
This was followed by a local government funding settlement, announced in December, which claimed to give more money to councils, but in fact shifted most of the responsibility onto council tax payers and offered an advantage to boroughs with more expensive homes according to the three-decades-old valuations, which can raise more council tax income. Councils across the country were left with an extremely difficult budget process, with many living hand-to-mouth and even more savings having to be found, made all the more difficult by the 11 years of real-terms funding cuts preceding it.
Since 2010, local government has been forced to work under constant austerity, making savings, finding efficiencies and taking tough decisions. In Islington, we have worked extremely hard to deliver balanced budgets, working against cuts in funding to make our borough a fairer place. I am proud to say we continue to do that but it is becoming harder each year as austerity continues for local government.
We will see difficult decisions made in the coming months across the country as dedicated councils try their best to keep providing the services local people need. I can only hope that the government finally steps up, fully reimburses councils for their pandemic responses and stops trying to make us do this with one hand tied behind our backs. But I’m not banking on it.