Lewisham council acted quickly to protect vulnerable members of the community but now faces a significant funding shortfall, warns Cllr Amanda De Ryk, Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources
Coronavirus has had an immense impact on our community that will be felt for months and even years to come. But the council’s priority remains the same – to protect the most vulnerable in our community.
Since the emergence of the pandemic in March we have focused our efforts on our emergency response, ensuring critical services that residents rely on can continue to operate.
I am hugely grateful to all of the council staff who have made this possible. From coordinating the community response with Lewisham Local, to delivering food parcels to residents who are shielding, to operating a responsive telephone and email helpline, the scale of the operation has been huge.
We know that businesses, many of whom have had to close their doors, and residents, many of whom have lost employment, are worried about the future. The government has provided Lewisham with funding for grants to small businesses and business rate relief, as well as an emergency grant scheme for residents who are struggling most.
While this funding from the government is welcome, it is nowhere near enough. Our response to the coronavirus pandemic so far has cost £50 million but the government has committed support of just £18 million.
The Secretary of State for Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, originally said the government would do ‘whatever it takes’ to support local councils in responding to the pandemic.
However, the government has since stepped back from those words and indicated that councils should ‘share the burden’, indicating it is no longer likely our lost income will be covered.
Councils’ budgets are made up from support from government, then income in the form of business rates, council tax and rents, fees and charges. Lost income is therefore critical to councils’ ability to function financially. All of this is coupled with the fact that local councils have experienced 10 years of budget cuts by central government, which have hit our community hard.
We are facing the biggest public health crisis in our lifetime. The government urgently needs to reaffirm its promise to properly fund the council’s response to the pandemic if we are to continue running vital services, support vulnerable people and save lives.
Failure to do so will mean further cuts to vital services, less support for the most vulnerable and job losses among the very staff who are bravely keeping our public services going.
If we really are, as the Chancellor said, ‘all in this together’, it’s time for government to put its money where its mouth is. The council is continuing to urge them to do exactly that.