Update from Labour Group Leader on Colchester Borough Council, Cllr Tina Bourne
Not everyone will be celebrating the easing of lockdown this weekend. The fall out effects of COVID-19 has exposed and increased health inequalities faced by many communities nationwide and across the borough. In wards represented by Labour, we are acutely aware that business rate relief, mortgage payment deferments and furloughing on 80%, although welcome, are of no support to those not in work, retired or on ESA support due to mental health & anxiety needs.
These residents are still suffering from austerity cuts to welfare benefits and increased costs of rising energy and food prices. They look to local councils to provide the support they need in discretionary benefits, improvements to their local environment, insulation projects to address fuel poverty, strong partnership working through joined up IT systems connecting with local DWP offices, stretching officer capacity to bring in funding for free/cheap broadband connection to neighbourhoods with the greatest deprivation – none of this makes for great photo opportunities in the local press or on social media.
But it is even more important than the more visual, and dare I say it, more culturally asked for projects in some eyes. Of course, we shouldn’t have to choose between the two, but the looming financial crisis in councils will mean that we have to. And in order to shore up votes in key groups, many councils politically will take the visual projects, meaning that those already suffering from austerity cuts pre-COVID will lose out again. This is unacceptable.
The government initially promised that councils would get all the resources they need to cope with this pandemic. The most recent research* shows councils could need as much as £6billion more this financial year. Almost two-thirds of further funding needed would be to cover lost tax income (council tax/business rates) and non-tax income (mostly sales, fees and charges), and the rest would be to cover lost cost pressures.
In Colchester, we are no different. We need financial freedoms and flexibilities, alongside access to short-term Public Works Loan Board loans (low interest only available to public bodies). This will ease immediate cash-flow pressures. However, without further funding guarantees (and the money in the bank) many councils are taking measures now in anticipation of future funding shortfalls. Although the government appears to be making an effort to understand the financial crisis that councils are facing by collecting regular data, local Tories are accusing Colchester of exaggerating the scale of the deficit.
There is no exaggeration. Colchester Borough Council has spent 10 years making savings, trimming services and increasing income through some innovative schemes in order to combat the effects of austerity and Tory government massive cuts to local authority funding grants. We cannot salami slice services anymore. The scale of the economic, environmental and community challenges that this council will face in the coming weeks and months should not be underestimated. It is vital that councils can support the economic recovery as emergency measures are lifted and we start to emerge from the crisis.
Councils cannot run a deficit budget. At the moment Colchester Borough Council is facing a £9m loss this year. Radical changes to services will be needed unless the government comes good with its promise to give us all the resources we need to cope with the pandemic. Now, more than ever, Labour councillors need your support on social media, letter writing campaigns and lobbying the MP.
We cannot do this on our own; we are part of a joint administration with a £9m black hole and without serious funding from central government there will be some unpopular decisions that we have to take. It will be easy for the opposition to criticise our decisions – they do not have the responsibility of running a balanced budget.
The Labour Group are determined to protect the invisible services that provide support for the most vulnerable in our borough and we will lobby Essex County Council to do the same.
Wishing you a safe week ahead.
Leader of the Labour Group, Colchester Borough Council
*Local Government Association, June 2020, analysis of May local council financial returns to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government