Today we have announced Lambeth Council’s budget for the year ahead. It is a budget that focuses on protecting our most vulnerable, despite the scale of the Conservative Government’s attack on local government.
Since 2010, the Tories have cut our funding by 56%. Local government has been hit harder than other public services and deprived areas like Lambeth have been hit hardest of all (while areas like David Cameron’s Oxfordshire have actually had a rise!).
Since the last time we set a budget, a year ago, we’ve had the election of a majority Tory Government and the Spending Review that followed in November. It is even worse than we thought and there is little prospect of an end to austerity any time soon.
At this week’s meeting of Lambeth Council, we heard from Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, who laid out in stark terms the changing nature of local government under this Tory Government. By 2020, our funding from government will have disappeared, leaving us solely dependent on business rates and Council Tax (which together make up only 2/3rd of our current income).
While this offers us significant opportunities to harness the benefits of growth in homes and businesses as a borough at the heart of London, there are also huge risks. By abolishing the grant, the Government is bringing an end to the important idea that areas with the highest need should get the extra resources they require to help vulnerable people. That is an idea that is integral to our Labour values of fairness and equal opportunity and it is important that we fight back strongly against this demolition of local government.
The scale of the financial task is the toughest challenge we’ve ever faced. We’ve saved £138 million already. But we have to find another £100 million in the years ahead.
This has meant we’ve had to make some really tough choices. We’ll be raising Council Tax next year by 1.99%, along with the additional 2% Government precept for Adult Social Care. This is the right thing to do to ensure we can raise more funding to protect some of our most vital services. The raise will mean an increase of just 36p a week for a Band D property and 65% of residents will pay this amount or less. And we will continue to have the 8th lowest Council Tax in London.
The Council will become a smaller organisation as we will have fewer staff in the years ahead. That will mean voluntary redundancy for between 300-500 members of staff. As a councillor since 2001 and leader for the last three years, I am very proud of the great work that our staff do in so many areas and it will be extremely difficult to see so many valued colleagues leave the council.
Less staff will also mean less capacity to deliver the same services in some areas. And we’re having to drive more efficiencies with our partners in areas like public health and social care, recognising that all of those who provide services in the public sector have to adapt to the realities we face.
Some people argue that councils should ignore this reality and refuse to make any of these cuts, as was done so disastrously in Lambeth in the 1980s. It took decades for Lambeth to recover from the impact of that. That’s why Jeremy Corbyn was right to reject this and to call on Labour councils to set balanced budgets that protect our most vulnerable.
That’s the approach we’re taking. By ensuring most of the savings in the budget we have announced today come from the back office and efficiencies, we can ensure we protect other services.
Over 50% of our budget is spent on providing care for vulnerable adults and children. We have a duty to provide that care and we will protect these frontline services as much as possible. We’re also protecting our important work around Violence Against Women and Girls, continuing to support those affected by Government welfare reforms and spending more on Council Tax support for those who can’t afford to pay.
These are the right choices to ensure that our Labour values are at the heart of what we can deliver for this borough.
Unfortunately, even as we are able to take pride in our work so far to tackle the scale of this challenge, we know that there are even more cuts to come. It is farcical to expect councils to keep finding ever more things to cut: but it’s a farce nevertheless that this Government shows no sign of stopping.
So we have to continue the hard work of changing our services to reflect the financial reality while at the same time, loudly and publicly rejecting the agenda that has imposed it. That means highlighting to our residents the scale of the Government’s 56% cut in our funding. And making sure everyone is aware of their plans to abolish local government as we know it.
It means calling out the hypocrisy of David Cameron or the local Tories in Lambeth when they campaign against cuts locally that they have so gleefully cheered nationally. And fighting back against this Government as we have always done, as it targets the areas who need support the most.
Most importantly, it’s about ensuring that Labour is a credible, alternative voice for all those who are suffering under this Government. That means campaigning as hard as we can to elect Sadiq Khan in May (you can sign up here to do that). And it means continuing to govern in Lambeth with our values of ambition and fairness for all, which led so many people to put their trust in us in 2014.