After the financial crash of 2008 and the following years of austerity where we have had to make over £130m of savings due to continuous cuts to our funding from government, we were presented with two choices: crossing our fingers and hoping for the best or taking our destiny in our own hands. We chose the latter.
Luton Council owns London Luton Airport and receives income from its operations. Since 2012/13 this has increased from £7.6m to £32.3m in 2019. This money has allowed us to continue many vital services to the most vulnerable in the town. In addition, since 2004, the airport has been able to give over £120m to local groups, charities and organisations – without which the onus for service provision would fall back on to us.
We were encouraged when successive governments praised us for our ambition – not just in our use of the airport – but other commercial activity as well. With a wish to further benefit from our unique relationship with air travel in 2019, the airport embarked on exciting proposals to further increase capacity and in so doing be able to increase the help it could provide to the people of the town.
The unexpected coronavirus pandemic brought the aviation industry to a grinding halt and with it, income from the airport to the council has effectively dried up. We were staring directly in the face of a £50m projected shortfall this year alone. So at an emotionally charged meeting on 14 July, after weeks of heart-breaking planning and scrutiny over every last penny of council expenditure, council agreed an emergency budget of £22m savings – a figure that was arrived at after drawing on reserves.
I am not alone in saying it was the worst night of my political career. My fellow councillors and I agreed to the drastic budget with extremely heavy hearts. We had made repeated calls to the Prime Minister, his cabinet and government to make good on promises to ‘do whatever it takes’ to protect local government from the impact of COVID-19, but couldn’t afford to wait any longer.
Over £9m of savings had already been identified through measures such as back office efficiencies, improving the way contracts are managed, savings from building closures and proposals to bring in more income. Nevertheless, given the magnitude of the savings needed, regrettably the balance will need to come from staffing reductions and cuts to some front line services.
At the moment we are currently developing proposals which include 365 staff losses.
Some of the service cuts that will most impact the public include:
- a new customer services model reducing face to face contact, except for our most vulnerable residents
- a review of the council tax support scheme
- reductions in neighbourhood enforcement, public protection services and highways maintenance
- introducing charging for green waste collection
- energy savings on street lights
- a reduction in adult social care and home care funding
- reduced funding for key preventative and mental health support services
- a review of the way we support travel for adults and children who require it
- reductions in funding for school improvement, youth advice and early years services
We have done our best to mitigate the effect these cuts will have. Luton is a resilient town, but one with high levels of poverty and deprivation. Significant numbers of households depend on income from the airport or aviation-related industries and these measures will add to the financial distress many are currently experiencing. It is not without reason that a report by the Centre for Cities has identified Luton as one of the top two towns that will be adversely affected by COVID-19.
We will continue to bang loudly on government’s door asking them to provide the emergency finances we need. Even with the clock having struck midnight, if the emergency funding were to arrive we would be spared from implementing the budget and causing additional hardship for residents.
Nevertheless we are determined not be bound by the twin shackles of COVID-19 and government’s indifference. Now we must turn our attention to doing the best we can for the people of Luton and provide them with a bright future.
Before the coronavirus we were developing proposals for a new town-wide vision with a central ambition that by 2040 no-one in Luton will have to live in poverty. The pandemic has made this work even more important.
14 July 2020 was not the reason I came into politics, but it has strengthened my resolve to do all I can for the people of Luton, who deserve the very best from fellow councillors and myself.
Cllr Hazel Simmons MBE is leader of Luton BC