I was elected to Southwark Council in 2010—just as the Tory-Lib Dem coalition Government came to power—and I served on the council until May 2016. We knew in 2010 that David Cameron and George Osborne’s response to the impact of the global financial crash would shrink the size of government at the expense of vulnerable people and that things were not going to be easy. We knew that funding was going to cut and that there would be difficult decisions to make as a consequence. However, we could not have anticipated just how much the burden of Lib Dem-Tory austerity would be made to fall on local councils.
Both the councils that serve my constituency—Lambeth and Southwark—have lost more than 50% of their grant from central Government. Lambeth alone has had to make savings of more than £200 million. In that context, both Labour councils have been striving to continue to protect local services, to continue to deliver for local residents and to act as a shield between their local communities and the Government’s austerity programme.
Lambeth has protected funding for specialist women’s refuge services, which is in contrast with other parts of the country, where 17% of specialist refuges have closed since 2010. Lambeth has maintained a commitment to some of the most vulnerable women in our community. Such services are largely invisible to all but those who rely on them, and I am extremely proud of Lambeth’s commitment.
Southwark has sustained a commitment made in 2010—in the face of vociferous opposition from local Lib Dems and Tories—to fund universal free school meals for primary-age children. Unlike this Government and their partial, miserly approach to free school meals, Southwark has recognised the benefits that come in attainment and social development from ensuring that every child in the borough has at least one healthy hot meal a day, that children from diverse backgrounds eat together, and that no child is stigmatised because of poverty.
Both councils were among the earliest adopters of Unison’s ethical care charter for social care, which is a commitment to pay all care workers the London living wage and to ensure that they are paid for travel between appointments, have sufficient time to care and are well trained. That is a commitment to fairness and to doing the right thing by the borough’s most vulnerable residents despite, not because of, the Government’s approach.
I am proud of those commitments and of the thoughtfulness and hard work of both councillors and council staff that has gone into delivering them. Lambeth and Southwark have shown remarkable resilience and commitment, but both are under intolerable pressure—pressure also experienced by councils across the country—and Government Members who doubt the severity of the crisis must listen to the words of their Conservative council colleagues. Sir Paul Carter, the Conservative leader of Kent County Council recently told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee:
“Local government and county councils, which have had the steepest financial challenge of any part of local government, have done extraordinarily well to help national Government start to restore the country’s public finances. We are all finding now that we really are eating into the bone”.
He went on to say that
“there are so many unfunded pressures that are building up across the piece in local government...The elastic is fully stretched.”
“The extra income this year will help offset some of the financial pressures they face but the reality is that many councils are now beyond the point where council tax income can be expected to plug the growing funding gaps they face.”
Those are the words, not of the Government’s political opponents, but of its friends in local government—councillors who have campaigned to get Conservative MPs elected—who clearly agree that the Government have quite simply been weaponising local councils to mete out the misery of its austerity agenda.
As I pay tribute to my Labour councils for their commitment to shielding our local communities from austerity as best they can in impossible circumstances, I call on the Government to recognise the vital role that local government plays, to heed the warnings from their own council colleagues, and to adopt an approach that seeks to empower local authorities, who know their communities best, to take decisions in the interests of the residents they serve.