It is a well-rehearsed argument: local government needs more money. It was true before the coronavirus pandemic and it is painfully true now – although the rapid escalation of the predicament in the past three months has been extraordinary.
Despite early promises to honour the costs of COVID, secretary of state Robert Jenrick has backtracked. There is likely to be a further round of funding shortly – but it is unlikely to be enough.
Now one London borough is challenging the secretary of state, demanding its money back.
Redbridge BC is not threating a s114 notice. It has resilience and reserves and the council is not close to collapse. Yet it has written to the secretary of state, reminding Mr Jenrick of what he said in March: ‘The Government will provide whatever funding is needed for councils to get through this and come out the other side.’
It has also launched a petition to residents, urging the communities secretary and the Government not to break the ‘promise’ and to ‘give Redbridge its money back’.
These are strong sentiments from the borough, but just two days in a petition had garnered more than two thousand signatures. Redbridge chief executive, Andy Donald, told The MJ: ‘We want to be really on the front foot on this.’
He says the Local Government Association has told the story of what is happening to the sector as a whole, but he can give a more detailed picture of how that looks at a local level. As people leave drawings and thank you notes for binmen, and clap for carers, there has never been a time when local government has been higher in the consciousness of people.
‘It’s the borough as a whole that is coming together and it’s the borough that will lose out [if they are not funded properly]’ he says.
In Redbridge, the figures are not dissimilar to the picture elsewhere. ‘The money that’s been paid so far, it pretty much covers what has been spent, but it doesn’t reflect the lost income,’ Mr Donald says. ‘That’s the bit that’s causing the problem.’
Nor does it take account of what is still to come. The preparation for the economic difficulties ahead, the hardship facing communities and businesses, and the falling income over the next few years. ‘We will get another funding announcement, but it won’t cover the full scale of what we have lost.’
For his council, Mr Donald predicts the pandemic will cost £60m. So far it has been funded to the tune of £15.7m – a £45m loss. Coincidentally, £45m equates to the council’s budget for everything other than adults and children’s services.
Coming on the back of a decade of austerity in which Redbridge has lost £180m, at a time when the borough has seen a significant change in demography. Mr Donald suggests Redbridge now displays all the signs of an inner London borough, but is still funded like an affluent outer borough.
While there is no danger of his borough facing a financial collapse right now he says: ‘It’s a very real prospect for future years.’ Already they have seen a 560% increase in universal credits take up, which will then impact on the number of people claiming council tax discounts.
It is a council that is recognised for its efficiency. Its children’s services is outstanding and adult social care services is ranked as one of the best in the country – while also being one of the lowest funded. He believes the borough gives good value for money.
What he wants is ‘an announcement more akin to what the NHS has been offered’. That means full funding – and with councils, central government wouldn’t even need to write off the debts.
Instead of the current piecemeal funding, which is a ‘spot solution’ to hold back a tide of s114 notices, he wants the Government to acknowledge the problem – and learn to trust councils to do the best for their community.
The experience of COVID, the new ways of working and connecting, this once-in-generation moment where the people value their public services, is an opportunity for Redbridge and other councils to fundamentally address some of the major issues facing their communities.
All Mr Donald is asking is for the Government to keep its promise.