Town Hall tells government to keep ‘whatever it takes’ pledge over council coronavirus costs
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick says there is no guarantee all relief spending will be reimbursed
07 May, 2020 — By Richard Osley
Finance chief Richard Olszewski
THE Town Hall says the government must not step back from a “whatever it takes” pledge amid a row over who should cover the cost of the coronavirus crisis.
Camden’s officials say the council could lose out on around £60 million over a six-month period, but Conservative communities secretary Robert Jenrick told a parliamentary committee on Monday that Whitehall would only be reimbursing local authorities for certain tasks.
He said: “We wouldn’t want anybody to labour under a false impression that what they are doing will be guaranteed funded by central government.”
So far, the government has sent a grant of around £19million. While councils are spending this money on extra services to help those in need, local authorities have seen other income fall.
In particular, Camden has been hit by a fall in parking revenue, partly because it suspended all charges to NHS staff, and the cancellation of events that come with licensing fees.
Central government said it is now reviewing how councils are spending grant money, with Mr Jenrick suggesting some local authorities had “done more than they were asked”. The council here says its costs have included finding accommodation for rough sleepers during the lockdown, a hardship fund that has seen one-off emergency payments to people who have completely run out of money and council tax “holidays”.
Camden Council leader Georgia Gould
The Town Hall has also funded voluntary groups to provide emergency food to those facing quarantine. How Camden has responded financially will be discussed by the cabinet on Wednesday night, the first time the executive has met since new remote technology has been used by councillors to restart council meetings.
Labour council leader Councillor Georgia Gould said: “At the start of this crisis they [the government] told us: Whatever it takes. That’s what councils did – delivering food, helping homeless, supporting business. The government must not now break promises, leaving us with a financial black hole that puts jobs of frontline heroes at risk. We can’t let it happen.”
Camden had only recently set a budget before the spread of the coronavirus took hold.
Finance chief Councillor Richard Olszewski said: “No industry will be immune from the financial impacts of the coronavirus – and it is clear there are tough economic times ahead. What is particularly concerning for local government and our residents is that we have borne the brunt of 10 years of austerity and have already had our budget from government cut in half. “If this crisis has proved anything, it is that frontline services need proper investment – and government will need to step up to the mark on this.”
Mr Jenrick said at his appearance before the housing, communities and local government committee: “I support councils making those decisions to do other things councils are doing of their own volition and I support councils making their own decisions. “But as you can imagine it is only fair that central government supports things that are open to all rather than individual choices by local councils.”
Camden is setting up a cross-party oversight committee to discuss and review its response to the crisis, which will begin work on Monday evening. Its first meeting will be screened on YouTube.