Greenwich knows Greenwich, so stop holding us back, council leader tells PM

Anthony Okereke
Greenwich Council leader Anthony Okereke has launched the town hall’s new budget

COMMENT: Greenwich councillors are set to sign off a 5 per cent council tax rise this week. After 13 years of cuts and uncertainty, council leader ANTHONY OKEREKE says the government needs to fund public services fairly.

Our proposed budget has been shaped by Greenwich residents. Shaped by people who love this area, its culture and its sense of community. Greenwich people just get Greenwich. They know what we need as a community.

We asked you what you wanted to see, and where you wanted to see change. Your voice shaped our vision, and our budget is focused on delivering this vision for our residents.

But it’s not as simple as that, because Rishi doesn’t get it. I’ve written to him to try and help him understand, and I encourage you to add your name to my letter.

I know everyone is sick of hearing the same lines year after year. But, I have to say, after 13 years of successive Conservative governments, life in the UK is not where it should be, and it’s not where they promised it would be. Right now people are scared to call an ambulance because they don’t know how long it will take to get to them, let alone how long will it take for them to be seen in A&E.

Make no mistake, our public services are beyond breaking point. They are broken. The only reason we as a country are functioning is because of the blood, sweat, tears and hard work of public sector workers who deliver day after day after day. It goes without saying that they need fair funding and not just a round of applause.

This crisis has also impacted our council services. It is heartbreaking to see people coming to my office because they’ve lived in temporary accommodation for who knows how long. In 2023, I can’t believe that we are having to find ways to stop children going hungry. It angers me that the Conservative government isn’t seeing the value of locally-run services.

Woolwich Town Hall
In real terms, Greenwich Council has £150 million less than it did in 2010, Okereke says

After 13 years, you’d think they’d have noticed. But we’ve been butchered by cut after cut after cut. When there is money, we’re guessing how much and when we’ll get it. We’re always on the back foot when we want to be moving forward.

It’s not just a question of how much money services are given, although that’s a big part of it. Inflation and demand are leaving a £32 million black hole in our council budget. But what’s worse is how disorganised and short-sighted Westminster actually is.

Let’s take parents in a family of four for example. They have bills to pay and food to buy. They also know that bills are getting higher and that food is getting dearer, so they want to be sensible and budget. Now imagine they don’t know what their wages will be, or when they’ll even get them. That’s what we have to deal with.

I only found out how much funding we were getting for this year the week before Christmas. That money goes to our schools, that money looks after our elderly, it protects our young people. I had to plan for the lives of 280,000 Greenwich people in a matter of weeks. How can we effectively plan if we’re guessing what we’ll have and when we’ll get it?

Anthony Okereke and Matt Morrow serving packed lunches
The council has been providing holiday meals for children during half-term

You won’t find many councils that aren’t putting council tax up. You won’t find many councils that want to put council tax up either. The bottom line for us is that we have £150 million less in real terms than we did in 2010. Money has been withheld at a time when our population is growing and poverty is increasing.

It is not easy to increase bills by 4.99 per cent, but our promise is that we will use our proposed budget to protect frontline services and prioritise in what residents told us matters.

We’re going to put an additional £1.8 million into waste services to keep streets and town centres clean, and to crack down on flytipping. We’re obviously going to need to back Greenwich Supports again, and that will be nearly £1 million of investment, on top of a £500,000 hardship fund for council tenants.

There’s also £1 million for our parks, and almost £1 million into improving transport around the borough. Not only do we want to make it easier and safer to get around, we need to make it greener too.

While I know this isn’t going to be enough, it’s what we have right now.

In my first year as leader, I’ve had to support businesses on the brink of closing, feed children going hungry, and help people becoming homeless. The biggest challenge I’ve ever encountered has been the cost of living crisis. It’s not just a news story, it’s reality.

But I’ve never been prouder than about how quickly we established Greenwich Supports, and how quickly we funded for community groups to start warm hubs, demonstrating our co-operative values.

We say it time and time again, but the community in Greenwich just gets things done. The way we worked together during the pandemic strengthened our ties, and now the voluntary sector is working overtime to support those struggling once again.

That’s because Greenwich gets Greenwich, so stop holding us back.

ANTHONY OKEREKE is the leader of Greenwich Council and a councillor for Woolwich Common ward.

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