The great Covid-19 swindle

Half of Brent's Civic Centre has been rented out to Air France to help balance the books (image: Mick Baker (cc by-nd 2.0))

Tom Miller says austerity continues for councils

The area I represent as a councillor, Brent, has the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in the country: 210.9 deaths per 100,000. This is a shocking statistic which represents a high BAME population and the health inequalities it faces, alongside generations of poverty, tight living conditions, and the legacy of a decade of austerity forced by central government upon our residents.

The Labour council itself has been praised for our response. Writing this May, even the Telegraph was effusive, making clear that we have taken swift and early action to prevent infections in our local care homes. We were also among the first to ignore Westminster and purchase PPE for our own care workforce. We reassigned workers and helped to coordinate hundreds of volunteers to ensure that shielded people and vulnerable residents face no chance of going hungry or running low on supplies and medication.

Since the Tory government came into office in 2010, Brent has lost around half of its total workforce, and even more of our controllable budget. Cuts to the central grant have devastated our income, and this has not been replaced by business rates. The local tax base has been restricted with undemocratic red tape preventing council tax rises, and anyway, our modestly earning residents have a limited capacity to pay compared with leafier areas in the country.

Attempts to keep vital services open have also led to Labour councils like us prioritising external income to flesh out budgets – for example, developing wedding provision as a much more commercial offer. Much of our Civic Centre building is now rented to companies like Air France – a way of earning some much needed mitigation money as well as filling some of the space where the half of our staff we can no longer afford would have been.

As well as facing the hit from additional coronavirus costs, outside income has been severely limited by the disease. It’s notable that much of our Covid response has also been powered by the goodwill of local volunteers, and therefore the budget cost of our response is actually artificially low. All the while, our budget without its Covid-related costs continues to break even.

Despite promises from Rishi Sunak and Robert Jenrick that councils would be refunded for Covid costs, neither councils nor our residents can put any trust in this whatsoever. Tory promises are forgotten almost as quickly as they are made, often with disastrous impacts, yet public debate around the issue appears almost non-existent and the impact without weight.

Brent estimates that the total pressures of Covid-19 will run to £50.2 million, but since the political heat of the early crisis has disappeared, government commitments to refund this have run to only £18.4m. This leaves a vast gap of £31.8m. The consequence will be the permanent stripping of emergency reserves and further huge cuts to add to the crushing austerity local people have already had to put up with, unless the government can be held accountable.

Johnson and co. pretend that they have weaned the Tory Party off austerity, but the truth on the ground is a totally different story. Labour’s campaigning against the scourging of local services since 2010 has been insipid, weakly coordinated and low profile and it has not hit home. Since 2010 we have also fallen into the trap of repeated debates in the movement that pit councillors against campaigners – a huge strategic blunder. We cannot afford to repeat our mistakes. For the backdoor costs the Tories heap upon our residents, this time we must make sure that they are the ones who pay.

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