Looking back on the past few weeks, it’s hard to avoid the sense that this crisis has so far been defined by two things.
First, the solidarity, sacrifice, care and mutual support of a community looking out for one another, especially by those on the frontline of combating this pandemic.
Second, the slow, shortsighted, and often seemingly reluctant response of a Government which has too often had to be pushed – often by the Labour opposition – into demonstrating that same community spirit and desire to do whatever’s required to support everyone, especially those most in need.
Local government has been an essential part of the community response, with its existing local knowledge and networks which were already central to supporting many people prior to the pandemic.
Yet despite this, councils are a resource which has often been under-utilised or simply overlooked in the COVID-19 response, with the Government choosing to hand out contracts to the private sector when local government may have been better placed.
The contract for running COVID-19 testing centres, for example, a multinational accountancy firm with no frontline public health expertise. It has seen testing centres located miles away from the NHS and care staff who need to access, hours long queues, and errors in collecting results.
Similarly, the task of distributing emergency food vouchers was handed to another private company Edenred, and has been beset with problems: from families unable to access the food voucher scheme due to IT glitches, long delays and the lack of internet access, to overpriced food packages of such low quality that many simply opted out of receiving them altogether.
It’s hard not to wonder why local councils, with their existing connections and expertise (such as trained public health staff) were not considered better placed to lead the local response to the pandemic.
Sadly, this is typical of the behaviour of successive Conservative governments who see little value in local government, and even less reason to properly support the essential services we provide. Many local councils have either chosen private providers to run essential public services, or had no choice but to outsource in order to make savings since 2010. This has led to an erosion of expertise in some areas as whole swathes of public sector knowledge has been moved into the private sector. It is very difficult to suddenly acquire those skills again in times of crisis.
Local government budgets in England have been hammered since 2010, with central government funding on average cut by 60%. Deprived areas attract less investment – less business, stalling or falling economy, fewer jobs and therefore fewer opportunities to shore up depleting council finances through income generation, Traditionally local authorities most affected have been Labour controlled. This new Conservative government is going to have to rethink LA funding formula in order to keep those newly acquired former-Labour constituencies solvent in these pressing times. It will be interesting to see what the final share out is, and how this compares to proportional funding pre December 2019 General Election result.
Colchester Borough Council alone has lost £12m a year of central government funding since 2010. That’s less money to clean your streets, collect your waste, maintain your parks, and support vital local charities and support services.
Instead, we’ve been left to make up the shortfall through money councils receive for building houses (New Homes Bonus) and an increased share of business rates. But this has not been enough to plug the gap in lost funding, and it leaves councils like ours ever more reliant on building houses just to be able to cover the costs of providing those essential services – a funding model that many Colchester residents would take issue with.
This is clearly no way to fund essential frontline services – a more sensible approach would identify the needs of the people in our communities and to allocate funding to meet those needs.
Similarly, in this pandemic councils have also not been provided with either the funding to support their emergency response, or the reassurances from the Government that it will cover the additional costs local councils are incurring now, in dealing with the pandemic.
Some Colchester residents see services like waste collection or street cleaning slipping under the weight of the crisis and wonder why they should still be paying the same rate of council tax.
It’s an understandable response. But many local councils have asked the Government about the possibility of giving residents a council tax holiday only to be told that they won’t be given any funding to cover that cost if they do.
With costs to councils already rising and incomes falling dramatically, we simply cannot afford to suspend or reduce council tax bills while continuing to fund basic services without commitments from central government to provide the necessary funding.
Colchester Borough Council is looking at a £10m funding shortfall this year, with the closure of Leisure World alone costing £1.5m in lost income. In response, the Government has so far pledged just £2m, leaving us with an £8m black hole overall.
The UK has already experienced 10 years of relentless cuts and austerity, and nowhere is this more true than in local government.
So far the signs are that local councils will be overlooked again for additional funding when the immediate COVID-19 crisis subsides and the long process of economic recovery begins.
Without a commitment to cover the costs of COVID-19 on local government finances, Colchester will be facing another round of austerity cuts. With councils such as ours once again expected to make do with less.
The Government should commit to cover the COVID-19-related losses councils like ours are incurring so we can protect frontline services both now and in the recovery period. Central government grants to councils should be reinstated so that we aren’t left reliant on generating income from house building and commercial activity in order to meet the needs of our residents.
The Colchester Labour Group will be calling for them to provide the funding for our residents and doing all we can with the resources available to support local people and keep your services going as best we can.
If the Government fails to do so, then they must be honest with the people of Colchester about the effects it will have on our borough, and big enough to shoulder the responsibility for the consequences for our community