The independent chair of our audit committee asked me if there is anything keeping me awake at night. Although I’m pleased to say I am still sleeping, I have to admit over the past few weeks my concerns about local government funding have been at the forefront of every waking day. Like all my colleagues who hold a statutory responsibility, we are having to weigh up what our organisations want and need to do with what we can afford to do while meeting the COVID-19 challenge.
With gallows humour, a few colleagues and I started trading R.E.M. songs and lyrics to express how we were feeling, including, I Can’t Get There From Here…It’s the End of the World As We Know It (but I don’t feel fine)…(I’m pushing an elephant up the stairs)…(I’m looking for answers) from The Great Beyond…and perhaps a little obscure…(wash off the 151) a take on Oddfellows Local 151.
Certainly, we can’t claim to be shiny happy people and we certainly won’t be holding hands for some time.
Broadly, the recent financial returns from local authorities to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) strongly indicate that the Government support committed so far is roughly a third of what councils need. The Local Government Association (LGA) is open to this being independently evaluated but at the time of writing there is no firm commitment from Government to provide the balance needed or a timescale as to when this will be resolved and so we must now consider planning for the worst.
This could be time-consuming when our organisations need to be wholly focused on responding to the crisis, keeping people safe while planning our way through what looks like to be a long recovery. This is not the time to be rationing resources to frontline services.
After suffering starvation for three months with his companions, Oliver Twist said: ‘Please sir, I want some more.’ Likewise, as a sector, local government must continue to ask for more.
Tony Kirkham is director of resources at Newcastle City Council