Comment

Council leader: Government cuts are making it hard to provide safety net for vulnerable residents

In our latest councillor’s column, Waltham Forest Council leader Grace Williams says ‘difficult’ financial decisions will have to be made to address funding challenges

Cllr Grace Williams, Credit: Waltham Forest Council

Local government finances are in crisis. Up and down the country, councils of every size and political persuasion are facing a perfect storm of ongoing increases in demand for services, high inflation, and insufficient government funding.

Waltham Forest is not immune to these challenges. We all know that everything is getting more expensive. We see it in our utility bills, in our weekly shop, in the clothes we buy, in the services we use, and in the journeys we take.

Interest rate rises may be on pause for now, but as anyone coming off a fixed rate mortgage will tell you they are still much higher than they were just a couple of years ago and have been for the last 20 years.

Renters have also felt the burden of price rises as landlords push increased costs onto tenants. As a local authority we are the safety net that supports the most vulnerable in our society and prevents people falling through the cracks.

We help 3,385 elderly and disabled people live independently in their homes. It’s
a lifeline for residents with higher needs that allows them to live comfortably and with dignity. But the number of people in Waltham Forest we are supporting has risen by over 1,000 in the past four years alone.

Not only have the numbers of those needing help risen but so have the average weekly costs – up by 24% in just four years. Or to put it another way, 13p out of every £1 the council has is spent meeting residents’ adult social care needs. For a typical Band D household that’s £183 of council tax a year.

It’s not just adult social care. Three years ago, we had 1,800 children and young
people who needed bespoke educational health and care plans. Now that figure is over 3,000. The number of children in the council’s care has risen from 303 in March 2020 to 342 by this August.

We all know that London is the epicentre of a housing crisis that causes misery for many of our residents. As of October 2023, we had 8,060 people on our housing waiting list and demand is rising. We are already the landlord for 12,000 households across the borough.

We continue to increase our social housing stock despite our budget constraints, but even though we built the second most council homes anywhere in the country last year we are still not able to meet demand.

The costs of providing accommodation in the private rented sector have gone up too. Temporary accommodation costs were nearly £50 a week higher in April 2023 than a year before, and the pace at which rates are increasing continues to grow.

Landlords facing higher interest rates are selling up, and those that remain can get higher rents from those looking to escape the astronomical prices of inner London boroughs.

This would not be so bad if the government had allowed the local housing allowance rate, the maximum amount people renting from a private landlord can claim in housing benefit or Universal Credit, to increase.

But it has been frozen for the past three years. We want to see the local housing
allowance rate increased so that it covers at least the bottom 30% of market rents. This will help us offer local accommodation to people who approach us at risk of being made homeless rather than having to look outside of the borough.

And we need more freedom to build the right homes in the right places – especially homes for social rent. This is a crisis that requires urgent action. As of September 2023, the number of people coming to us at imminent risk of homelessness is 50% higher than last year.

This increased demand for our services comes at a time when central government funding for councils has been slashed. The deliberate policies of the last five Conservative prime ministers and chancellors to reduce central government support for local authorities and have an active policy of ‘managed decline’ for our communities continues to have a negative impact on those in most need of help.

The cost of absolutely essential provision for the elderly and children, and for
carrying out life-line services such as child protection, household rubbish collections, recycling, social care, street cleaning, trading standards, food hygiene, roads, and libraries has fallen on local taxpayers.

When council tax bills landed on people’s doormats in 2013, 57% of our funding
came from the government. Ten years on that has fallen to 34%. Council tax now accounts for 55p of every pound that we spend, up from 35p in 2013/14.

Much of the rest comes from local business rates. Waltham Forest prides itself on sound financial management. We have made and will continue to make difficult decisions in the long-term interests of our residents. Like every council we are legally bound to balance our budget or go bankrupt.

After 13 years of austerity and having already made over £120million in savings there is very little left to cut. Ahead of the Autumn Statement I wrote to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt asking him to do more to help us and other local authorities.

We are facing a significant budget deficit that will mean many tough decisions over the coming months. Our priorities are clear: our residents come first in everything we do and every decision we make – always.

Note: Full details of the council’s 2024/25 budget including potential council tax increases, will not be published in full until mid-February.

You can get in touch with Cllr Williams here: [email protected]