The capital’s cash-strapped borough councils will have to make further cuts in their services to vulnerable Londoners if national government fails to honour a commitment to “see you right later” made at the onset of the coronavirus crisis, according to the chair of the cross-party body representing London’s local authorities.
Peter John, who is leader of Southwark Council as well the chair of London Councils, said this morning that a “pretty dispiriting call” with communities secretary Robert Jenrick yesterday had left him concerned that previous assurances that councils could “spend now and the government will see you right later” are being rowed back from, and that this would mean “cutting back on the sorts of services that support some of our most vulnerable people”.
Speaking to BBC Radio London’s Vanessa Feltz, John said that money has become his biggest anxiety following a conference call with Jenrick and fellow council leaders from across England, during which the secretary of state “talked about ‘burden-sharing’ and no promises being made,” whereas, “We were told three or four weeks, spend now, we’ll sort you out later”.
John said his expectation now is that Southwark and other councils will “have to make some significant in-year savings, so services will be cut as a consequence if the government doesn’t really live up to the promise it made a month ago.”
While accepting that “the whole country’s going to have to bear tough financial times in the years ahead,” John emphasised that “councils have really, really been under the cosh for the last decade,” and pointed out that, unlike NHS hospitals, local authorities are required by law to set balanced budgets or face possible national government intervention in how they run their financial affairs.
Praising the government for moving quickly to alleviate NHS debt in order to help the service cope with the surge of extra pressure caused by Covid-19, John pointed out that councils too carry debt, much of it accruing from housebuilding going back decades, and that “it wouldn’t be a bad idea if government decided they’d write off council debt as well. It would certainly make our finances easier going forward.”
He added: “Councils have had a decade of austerity. We have borne more than any other bit of the public sector over the last decade, and it is really going to be tough to know where to go. We have made every efficiency saving that we possibly could have since 2010, so where do you go? I really don’t know where to start. There’s a chance for the government to put this right. They made a pledge to us four weeks ago, and they really have to live up to that, but after yesterday I’m a bit worried.”
Following publication of this article, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government contacted On London with the following statement from a spokesperson: “The Secretary of State has been clear that we will support councils to provide services to their communities during the pandemic. We’ve already provided £1.6 billion of additional funding and will continue to keep any future funding under review.”
Photograph: Southwark Town Hall, by Dave Hill. Article last updated on 16 April 2020.
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