Council facing financial shortfall as it counts cost of tackling Covid-19, reports James Cracknell
The leader of Waltham Forest Council has warned that significant service cuts will be needed if the government does not honour its pledge to fully reimburse all coronavirus-related costs.
A second round of Covid-19 support funding was made to local authorities last month, with a further £7.5million granted to Waltham Forest, bringing its total to £15.1m. But the council warned back in April that its projected deficit for the pandemic was now £40m, as it suffered both a loss of income and a steep rise in costs to help the borough respond.
Speaking to the Echo, Clare Coghill said: “There is still a very significant gap. When this started local government leaders were in a conference call with Robert Jenrick, who said ‘spend what you need to spend and you will get that money back’.
“We have worked very hard and I don’t think we have missed any opportunity to help people or been profligate, but the government has back-tracked. We have spent £25m on making sure we get this right and our staff are supported and protected.
“But the government position has changed – they are now saying it is only directly coronavirus-related spend that will be reimbursed. [Chancellor of the Exchequer] Rishi Sunak said councils would be given everything they need to get people through this but it seems, as far as local councils are concerned, they have rowed back on that.”
Cllr Coghill said the council was having to dip into its reserves to manage the ongoing public health crisis, but if no further money from government was forthcoming “services will have to adapt and change”. The leader added: “The public sector isn’t to be taken for granted. It is the institution that you need when a crisis hits.”
The council spent much of last month preparing for the return of pupils to local primary schools, but Cllr Coghill said it was not yet safe for all schools in the borough to reopen as some needed more time to adapt. In a statement addressing the fears of parents she said: “We recognise and share the concern of parents and teachers for the safety of children and staff. We are also acutely aware of the need for children to access education and social opportunities. There are risks to children of being out of school, including to those vulnerable to neglect, abuse or exploitation, and the risk to all children of learning being lost.
“We have made it clear to schools that we expect them only to open to additional pupils once risk assessments have been carried out and appropriate measures put in place. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work and schools will need to implement plans based on a range of factors, including their size, layout and availability of staff.”
At the end of May the council began to reopen some sports and leisure facilities, with the skate park at Lloyd Park now open, plus tennis courts at Lloyd Park, Ridgeway Park and Abbots Park and lawn bowling greens at Lloyd Park, Aveling Park, and Memorial Park.
The supply of PPE for key workers continues to be a pressing issue, with a ‘Waltham Forest United for PPE’ campaign launched by Waltham Forest Trades Council (WFTC) to demand adequate provision. WFTC expressed concern over inconsistent deliveries, claiming some local workers are keeping expired masks for several days.
Martin Goodsell, from East London Unite Community, said: “It’s not certain supplies of PPE are delivered regularly or even if the equipment is of the required standard. For these reasons, we want to reach out to care workers across the borough to help ensure they are being supplied with adequate PPE. We encourage them to tell us about any problems.”
The council’s annual meeting, at which the mayor for the coming year is traditionally sworn in, has been indefinitely postponed. The current mayor, former council leader Chris Robbins, has agreed to continue for the foreseeable future.
On the community’s response to the pandemic, Cllr Coghill told the Echo: “The commitment people have shown to protecting and supporting our residents has been incredible. It has blown away my expectations.”
The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government was contacted for comment but did not respond.