LBWF Leaders rattle the begging bowl, but splash £100,000 on ‘a conversation’ between seven floodlit buildings

Since the start of the pandemic, the respective Labour Leaders, first Cllr. Clare Coghill and later her successor, Cllr. Grace Williams, have returned to versions of the long-standing Labour complaint that LBWF is not getting a fair funding deal from the Tory government.

Cllr. Coghill early on set the tone, stating in a press release of April 2020 that “‘If lockdown measures continue for 12 weeks the full impact on our finances could be up to £40 million, roughly 10 per cent of our planned budget for this year’, and then telling the Waltham Forest Echo that while ministers had initially encouraged all local authorities to spend as was necessary, and promised to pick up the tab, subsequently they had ‘“rowed back”’ on their initial pledges, meaning that LBWF was having to ‘“dip into its reserves”’ and contemplate service changes.

More recently, Cllr. Williams has followed suit, underlining in a public letter to Chancellor Rishi Sunak of October 2021 that the scale of need which LBWF faced was alarming – ‘almost half the children in our borough…live in poverty’, ‘16,000 adults went a whole day without eating in the last year due to lack of money’, and so on – but insisting that since ‘We are doing everything we can at a local level’, it was the government that must ‘urgently bring forward a fair deal for Waltham Forest’.

Given these fervent protestations, it might be expected that LBWF’s use of public money would be unimpeachable, but this turns out not to be the case.

One example in particular sticks out like a sore thumb. 

In an eight-week period around Christmas and the New Year, LBWF ran an arts programme which involved lighting up seven ‘significant buildings’ in different colours, ‘designed around the themes of nature, astrology and the festive season’, in order to ‘create a conversation’ between them, and link ‘neighbourhoods and communities right across the borough’.

And the cost of this ‘durational light work’ was an eye watering £100,000, with the majority of the money going to an outfit registered in North Somerset, which, according to its latest accounts, filed in March 2021, had net liabilities of minus £147,180.

How can this extravagance be explained?

Perhaps someone in the Town Hall really did think that ‘a conversation’ between buildings would buck up the spirits of those who are too poor to eat properly, but even in Waltham Forest that seems a little far-fetched.

A more realistic possibility is that, pumped up by the Borough of Culture shindig, the local arts lobby is simply too powerful to turn down.

Finally, it may be the case that, anyway, the two Leaders’ fundamental premise regarding the alledged impact of Covid and Westminster parsimony on LBWF finances is less a matter of sober evaluation, more about political posturing.

A straw in the wind, here, is provided by a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report which concludes that ‘English councils’ finances held up much better during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020–21, than previously thought’, and elaborates:

‘overall English councils received billions more in [government] funding than their net expenditure actually increased by. Thus while some councils had to draw down their reserves and seven had to ask for special temporary borrowing powers from the government in 2020–21, councils as a whole were able to pay substantially more into their reserves last year than had been anticipated prior to the pandemic’.

In this context, even £100,000 may be considered just loose change.

Whatever the truth, to spend such a sum on a light show, while simultaneously brandishing figures about the extent of local poverty, leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

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