COVID continues to threaten our statutory obligations to our communities

By Cllr Judith Blake | 21 October 2020

Our country and our economy is paralysed by a pandemic; the Prime Minister has been gravely ill in hospital and there is little international agreement on how to stop the spread of a deadly virus.

This is not 2020, but our country just over a century ago as we weathered an outbreak of the Spanish Flu that would eventually kill more people than World War One.

Then, as now, commentators predicted the end of the city, saying that people would no longer want to work, play and study in urban centres. But the world’s great cities survived and prospered.

As we know, over the last decade the way we fund services has changed, Government grants dropped by a third and in response, local authorities have shown innovation and leadership to find other forms of income.

As Core Cities we have attempted to work closely with Whitehall and Westminster, despite inevitable tensions over lockdown restrictions, track and trace and funding but it has been a case of diktat, not dialogue, from central Government.

On lockdown, I fully support the stance taken by local leaders in the North West. If Government enforces tier-three then it must be prepared to support local councils to protect the vulnerable and those whose incomes will be severely affected.

Meanwhile, the funding gap caused by COVID continues to threaten our statutory obligations to the communities we serve. A number of local authorities are considering in-year cuts to jobs and we expect worse to come over the next financial year as the effects of COVID are fully felt.

Unless this is urgently addressed, councils will not be able to continue to steer cities through this crisis, drive recovery and address the economic shifts accelerated by COVID.

The absolute priority is additional funding to close our budget deficits, but there are other measures we urgently need, for example a three-year financial settlement that will allow councils to plan and provide desperately needed stability. Government could also reform the interest rates that it charges to local authorities who wish to borrow to carry out public works.

If we can bring financial stability to local government, then our cities will not only survive but prosper and help our nation recover, just like they did a century ago.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council and chair of Core Cities UK


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