LBWF and COVID-19 (2)

In the latest edition of the ‘independent community newspaper’, the Waltham Forest Echo, LBWF Leader, Cllr. Clare Coghill, is particularly exercised by what she sees as government perfidy. Ministers had initially told local authorities ‘“spend what you need to spend and you will get that money back”’, she claims, but then ‘“back-tracked”’, with the current position being ‘“it is only directly coronavirus-related spend that will be reimbursed”’.

The consequences, she adds, are grave. LBWF already has started ‘to dip into its reserves’, and if no further assistance is forthcoming, services will have to ‘“adapt and change”’.

Cllr. Coghill is of course a politician, and her attempt to take the moral high ground is understandable. Yet those who criticise others must always be sure that their own record is impeccable, and be able to prove so.

Cllr. Coghill tells the Echo: ‘“We have worked very hard and I don’t think we have missed any opportunity to help people”’. But how well does her boast stand up to scrutiny?

Much of the data, of course, is not yet in, and won’t be for many months, maybe years. Nevertheless, in one respect, there already seems to be cause for unease.

For some eight weeks now, the government has been running a grants scheme to aid ‘small businesses, and businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors’, with money funnelled to recipients via the 315 English local authorities.

LBWF’s allocation is £54,066,000, and it is estimated that 3,434 local business ratepayers are eligible for support.

As of the week ending 14 June, LBWF had paid out around £41m., about 76 per cent of its total funding.

That sounds impressive.

But in fact LBWF’s performance in moving monies out to recipients is worse than all but one of the other London local authorities, and also the vast majority of local authorities nationally, leaving it ranked at number 291.

No doubt some will dismiss this as mere detail, an aberration which quickly will be corrected.

Time will tell.

Currently, there is a lively debate going on about what Ministers promised local authorities by way of special support in the first place, and how far Town Hall finances are really stretched.

Hardly a day goes by without a local authority somewhere (Tory as well as Labour) reporting that pandemic-related spending and lost revenue is producing a financial black hole which may force them into bankruptcy.

More sceptical observers wonder about the veracity of some of the figures being banded about, and question whether, in the general confusion, attempts are being made to milk the government, and make good previously unwise decision-making.

The lesson for the outside observer is – now even more than ever – to take all such claims with an adequately sized pinch of salt.

PS According to the Financial Times, in responding to the clamour from universities for more emergency funding, the government is considering some kind of restructuring deal whereby aid will only be given in exchange for reforms.

One of the latter, it is said, will be a reconsideration of vice-chancellors’ pay.

It can only be hoped that a similar approach will be used with local authorities.

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