Councillor Joe Corry-Roake writes about how Councils are struggling to respond to Covid-19 due to lack of funding from central Government.
Mid-way through March the Government announced that they would do “whatever is necessary to support” councils in helping the most vulnerable in society and to support their local economy during the Covid-19 crisis. Last week they changed their mind. The Secretary of State said support would only be where councils are delivering specific things central government had told them too. Furthermore, those councils that have been going above and beyond to support local residents, businesses and civil society should not “labour under the false impression” that those Covid-19 related costs would be covered.
Councils of all political stripes have been hit. Lambeth, the London borough I am a councillor in, is facing a shortfall of £25m in 2020 as a result of our response, and many councils are expressing public and private concerns about bankruptcy as a result; ranging from councils across Yorkshire and the Humber and Greater Manchester to the Conservative run Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead whose leader recently wrote to the government raising his concerns.
Aside from the deceit of promising one thing and then reneging on it six weeks later, the financial crisis now facing councils also reflects a decade long stripping away of councils’ funding. Councils have had almost £16bn of core funding from central government cut since 2010 – that’s about 60p lost from every pound they were getting before.
All of these things, as well as number of other policies brought in by successive Conservative Prime Ministers, including on social security and housing, have had a real world impact which has been brought to the fore during the current pandemic. For example, we are seeing a meteoric rise in foodbank use as the economic consequences of the lockdown have hit people who were clearly already in extremely precarious financial position. The Trussell Trust distributed almost 40,000 more food packages in the last two weeks of March compared to the same period last year. Unfortunately this isn’t new; the foodbank closest to the Ward I represent, Clapham Park Foodbank, has seen the number of people referred from my ward increase threefold over the last four years.
As the death rates from Covid-19 become clearer, it is obvious that it does not impact everyone equally. We know for example that BAME workers are far more likely to be in lower paid, more precarious employment and are more often living in overcrowded homes.
Again, this reflects a broader trend. Earlier this year, the Marmot Review 10 Years On looked at the widening of health inequalities in the UK over the last ten years and found that government spending has decreased most in deprived places. It also revealed that life expectancy was falling for some of those in the most disadvantaged categories; an unprecedented trend in modern times.
We know that preventative approaches, for the country and for us as individuals, are more efficient that trying to tackle a problem after it has already happened and is the best way for us all to see off the Covid-19 pandemic. We also know that those with underlying health conditions are at higher risk if they do get Covid-19. If this is the case, why have councils not done more to tackle these health inequalities and invested in prevention?
It comes back to resources. In a counter-productive and upsetting move, local authority public health grants were cut £850 million in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20 by central government. Added to that, Councils have more than a thousand statutory responsibilities, and if they don’t fulfil then central government can, and does, just come in and take over the running of a council, stripping its operations right back and leaving many vulnerable people to fend for themselves.
So, because of major and damaging cuts to council budgets, with large reductions in the number of staff and services, Covid-19 took hold at a time when the inbuilt capacity of Councils to support vulnerable residents wasn’t there and it took time to reprioritise. This isn’t to say that the innovation and capacity hasn’t been found, and many have really stepped up to ensure our communities are still supported. To maximise their impact, the best have worked with a wide range of partners; local businesses, charities, community groups, individual volunteers, residents associations, neighbouring local authorities and the NHS.
But these groups should all be an important addition to an empowered and properly resourced local government rather than a replacement for it. Indeed, formal volunteering is less prevalent in deprived neighbourhoods and fewer charities are established in poorer areas so relying on them along risks exacerbating inequalities further.
To deliver with and for residents every day of the year, councils need to be properly funded, not just when there is a crisis. The government must learn that lesson.
Joe Corry-Roake is a Labour Councillor for Clapham Common Ward in Lambeth. He is also Political Adviser for the Shadow Secretary of State for International Development.
He tweets at @JOECORRYROAKE