Warning over council finances

Enfield Civic Centre

Government accused of breaking promises over Covid-19 financial reimbursement, reports James Cracknell

The leader of Enfield Council is calling on the government to honour a pledge to “stand shoulder to shoulder” with local authorities as the council faces a £68million hit to its finances during the pandemic.

Ministers promised in March that they would give councils the money they needed to tackle coronavirus in their areas, but Enfield has received less than £18m to date. It has left the Labour-run administration scrabbling to find the money to cover its response to the crisis.

Leader Nesil Caliskan, in a letter to the prime minister, wrote: “The financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis on local government is of a scale and speed that we have never before experienced.

“The words from government at the outset of the crisis towards local authorities were confident and encouraging. It appeared that government fully understood and appreciated the role we had to play in meeting the challenge from Covid-19.

“We believed we had support from your government to do what was necessary to stabilise our communities and get help to those who need it and that you would play your part by meeting the costs incurred.

“Enfield Council now needs that support to manifest itself in funding commensurate with both our outlay to support those affected by the crisis and our loss of income.”

The council’s pandemic response programme, Enfield Stands Together, has delivered more than 20,000 food parcels to vulnerable residents, while also arranging for prescriptions to be sent out and giving advice to residents and businesses via its call centre. Two community support hubs have been established at warehouses within the borough with help from a network of volunteers.

At a cabinet meeting held online last month, the council’s cabinet member for finance, Mary Maguire, warned: “At the start of this crisis the chancellor said local authorities would get the resources they need. In February we set a balanced budget for 2020/21 to ensure our finances were strong, resilient and sustainable.

“However, as a direct result of the Covid-19 crisis, the financial pressures are now huge… the government funding of £17.9m nowhere near meets it.”

Gina Needs, cabinet member for social housing, also wrote to the minister for rough sleeping and housing, Luke Hall, requesting continued government support for homeless people in Enfield who have been temporarily housed – many in hotels – during the pandemic.

Cllr Needs wrote: “We are alarmed at the prospect that the government will not provide ongoing financial support and co-ordinated action to ensure that we can secure settled housing and support for residents currently in emergency housing.”

A week after this letter, the government announced an additional £160m for moving rough sleepers into long-term accommodation. Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said: “We have offered accommodation to over 90% of known rough sleepers in order to help them stay safe during the pandemic. This has been possible because of an incredible effort by the government, councils and charities.

“Thousands of lives have been protected throughout this national emergency and we continue to fund this vital project.”

Meanwhile, the council has criticised the government’s plan to reopen schools. Rick Jewell, cabinet member for children’s services, described the government’s plans as “extremely ill advised”. Schools have the freedom to decide whether or not to reopen this month to pupils from reception, year one and year six classes, but the council has stated it is “unwilling to fine parents who have understandable concerns about sending their children to school”.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government was contacted for comment on the issue of reimbursing the council but did not respond.