Government failure to cover the cost of Lewisham’s emergency response to the pandemic will force the council to make a further £34m in cuts as it struggles to balance its budget, warns Cllr Amanda De Ryk, Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources.
For the last 10 years, councils have borne the brunt of austerity, with local authority budgets repeatedly slashed by central government.
In Lewisham, we have been forced to make £190m worth of cuts since 2010, with significant reductions in spending on key services for local residents as a result.
COVID-19 has only placed further strain on the council’s finances, with the total cost of the pandemic for Lewisham currently estimated at £67m and rising.
Yet despite the Secretary of State for Local Government, Robert Jenrick, pledging to do ‘whatever it takes’ to support local councils in responding to the pandemic, the funding received from central government to date barely covers half of the total financial impact of COVID.
The combined impact of the government’s austerity agenda and their failure to support councils in their response to COVID has left local authorities with no choice but to make further cuts.
To meet our legal obligations to set a balanced budget, up to £34m worth of cuts will need to be made in 2021/22.
So far, we have identified £15.4m worth of cuts for next year’s budget, with officers currently working on proposals to address the remaining budget shortfall.
Throughout this process, we are determined to be open and honest with residents about the scale of the task ahead.
Having worked tirelessly since 2010 to protect vital services in the face of continued austerity, the need to make further cuts at such a difficult moment for Lewisham represents an immense challenge for the council.
While we will continue to protect our most vulnerable residents, these cuts will have a big impact on Lewisham and leave all of us worse off as a result.
Although the scale of the cuts and their impact on Lewisham should not be understated, our approach will continue to be underpinned by our values.
We remain committed to building council homes, tackling inequalities and protecting our most vulnerable residents.
These are tough decisions for us as councillors. Lewisham is our home and we care deeply about the communities that we represent. It is incredibly painful to be put in a position where we have no choice but to make cuts of this scale.
It’s made all the more painful by the government’s refusal to give local authorities the funding they need.
With the Local Government Financial Settlement due to be announced in the coming weeks, the chancellor has it in his power to put an end to 10 years of austerity in local government and prevent these cuts from being made.
Rishi Sunak claimed that there would be no return to austerity, but at the Spending Review this week he chose to freeze public sector workers’ pay.
These are the workers, like carers, social workers and teachers, who have been on the frontline responding to the pandemic.
To choose to give them what is in effect a pay cut, at the same time as they are dealing with the second wave, is a cruel blow.
As a council, we continue to lobby the government to provide a proper funding settlement for Lewisham residents. Yet without a change in approach from central government, we will need to prepare for the prospect of more cuts in the years ahead.
It’s time for the government to put its money where its mouth is, end this ruinous policy of austerity funding and prevent further cuts being imposed on Lewisham.