Politics has been described by some as “the art of the possible” – we are driven by ideals but implementing them is tricky when faced with a national government that has very different ones.
As council leaders in London we must promote our values and priorities, while constantly also responding to changes in funding, rules and expectations. Local government has been through one of those challenging periods with a government that doesn’t seem very interested in innovation or in the progressive work we can do to empower and transform local lives and communities, but has instead given us a decade of austerity which has slashed our funding.
It is particularly ironic that during the pandemic, a time when for so many in our communities the most important thing is decent care and support, our hands have been substantially tied while we have tried to provide it. Despite this, we’ve stepped up and innovated to protect key services and over the past year in particular shown more than ever the value of these to our community.
Due to austerity, setting our annual budget on how we spend council tax gets more challenging every year. This year has been the hardest budget climate I’ve faced in my time in local government.
In Tower Hamlets we have made painful savings, but we have chosen to retain a core of support for the neediest in our community. From this, we are holding together the foundations of a better recovery.
- Protects our Council Tax Reduction Scheme so that over 31,000 households benefit and over 17,500 pay no Council Tax at all.
- Delivers 2,000 council homes.
- Funds additional police officers to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour.
- Invests in our Tackling Poverty Fund.
- Protects free school meals.
- Invests to tackle our climate emergency.
- Protects our children’s centres and invests in three new schools.
- Sets up a Covid recovery fund for investment.
Over the past year it’s been local government that has had to quickly respond to every government U-turn, redeploying staff and responding to the challenges of the pandemic, from distributing emergency food and personal protective equipment to helping those shielding and providing rent relief. Of course we’ve continued to do what might be called the basics of collecting the bins and gritting the roads, and this too is vital work that keeps communities going.
The government has cut £200 million in our funding since 2010 and we need to save a further £30 million over the next three years as demand for services continues to rise. Covid-19 has also put a further strain on our finances. The government’s Levelling Up Fund has left out deprived boroughs like mine and instead benefits Tory shires.
On the one hand, the government takes a centralised approach. This means things like business rates where we do well funding is taken away from us. On the other hand on things which are a real lifeline to our most vulnerable residents like help with council tax or crisis loans these have been handed down to local councils. We then have Tories locally lining up to oppose cuts.
The government expects councils to raise their council tax by the maximum 4.99 per cent – but you have to remember that the majority of this is for adult social care. The increase for core council services is just 1.99 per cent of that, or an additional 40p per week for the average household.
I didn’t go into politics just cut ribbons on new facilities but I also didn’t go into it to be forced to close services because the government has slashed millions of pounds from our income. While we continue to walk this tight rope, Labour in local government is showing that it can deliver on its values.
John Biggs is the directly-elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets. Follow him on Twitter.
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