Over 2,000 people have cancelled their council tax direct debits in Greenwich borough as the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic bites, the town hall’s new finance chief has said.
Chris Kirby, who will become the cabinet member for finance after Wednesday’s annual general meeting of Greenwich Council, spoke out on social media after Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, claimed local authorities were getting more money than they say they need to deal with the crisis.
Local councils like Greenwich, which is responsible for public health and social care, are working at the forefront of the nation’s response to the pandemic. There have already been fears that some councils may be forced to effectively declare bankruptcy, from Labour Liverpool to Conservative Windsor & Maidenhead.
At Wednesday’s Downing Street press briefing, Jenrick warned: “We wouldn’t want anybody to labour under a false impression that what they are doing will be guaranteed funded by central government.”
Pressed by journalists, he added: “Councils are receiving more money so far than they have reported to us as needed to meet the Covid-related costs they are bearing.”
‘Thrown under the bus’
However, Kirby tweeted yesterday that the cabinet minister was being “deliberately misleading”, adding that the council was spending an extra £10 million on social care and that some staff in areas such as refuse collection were working double shifts to cover for sick colleagues.
“Council tax collection is a huge concern – we’ve seen more than 2,300 people cancel direct debits in March and April alone,” he said. “Alongside this we have an explosion in universal credit applications – seeing a peak of 280 over the Easter period. Out of all proportion to normal levels.”
The council had also lost £1 million in planning charges and £2million in parking fees, he said, while even small drops in council tax (1%) and business rate collections (2%) had cost another £2 million – while the council would lose more by giving businesses rent holidays.
Savings in this year’s council budget had been wiped out by the response to the pandemic, he said, after 10 years of government austerity.
“The direct effect to us in Greenwich – through additional expenditure, lost income and foregone savings – is likely to run into tens of millions of pounds. Without additional government support, the impact will fall yet again on those who rely on our services most of all,” he said.
“We can’t have a situation where the government throws councils under the bus and runs away from funding commitments. They need to get into the real world and listen to what councils up and down the country are telling them – it’s time to provide the financial support we need.”
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