Cllr Jack Hopkins is the Leader of Lambeth Council, and a councillor in Oval ward.
The Covid-19 virus has changed everything. Our borough has faced some extraordinary and far-reaching challenges. Lambeth residents have experienced great pain and hardship, isolation and declining health. Many people have lost their jobs. Large numbers of people have suffered ill-health as a result of the virus and 45,000 people have died from Covid-19, or had previous underlying conditions worsened by it, leading to death.
It was said early on in the pandemic that coronavirus “does not discriminate”. The facts say otherwise. Vulnerable people, especially those from a Black and/or Minority Ethnic background, or older people or those living with disability, have been disproportionately hit hardest. Those who were celebrated weekly for their role as key workers have paid the ultimate price for their commitment to public service. Poorly paid public sector and health and care workers have borne the brunt.
While the Government has assisted many people, the national economy is projected to contract by up to a fifth in a single quarter. Millions of people have been furloughed. Thousands of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of businesses are under pressure. The aftermath of the initial crisis will be as every bit as challenging as the start of the pandemic.
And that pandemic is still ongoing, with a second wave now possible.
There have been changes to managing the spread of the virus – ‘clusters’ of Covid-19 outbreaks will now be managed locally, with potential localised lockdowns, as recently happened in Leicester. The Government now seems to accept that localised and neighbourhood solutions are far more effective than centralised ‘command and control’ approaches.
Yet as hard as dealing with the outbreak and the lockdown was, the challenges ahead are much greater. The slow lifting of lockdown and attempting to safely reopen our economy; adapting our daily lives to contain the spread of the virus; managing the enormous economic impact of Covid-19 and the after effects of lockdown on people’s mental and physical health – these are all interconnected and enormous challenges.
And this is because Covid-19 has not been simply a health crisis. It has been an economic, social and political crisis too. Unemployment and financial uncertainty, interruptions in education and life for young people, the challenge of sharing public space and a level of mental stress and anxiety which has been felt by everyone. No one in Lambeth has not suffered through Covid-19.
Many of the negative impacts of the virus have exacerbated challenges of poverty and inequality already keenly felt by our communities and particular our Black and Minority Ethnic communities, older and disabled residents. And on those communities the impact has been and remains compounded by the multiple ways in which those individuals and communities have been hit harder than others.
What the crisis has done briefly has shown a light on these disparities and inequalities to a broader section of our population. It is crucial that in fighting for equality that those who do not personally experience these hardships understand and become allies. It cannot be that we live in our borough celebrated for its diversity, yet that people’s lives are so unequal and that so many of our residents are ignorant of the situation their neighbours find themselves in.
The solutions require genuine engagement and partnership to set the right course for what will be a difficult future. Lambeth has always worked in partnership, recognising that doing things together gets to the heart of the problem and the right solutions better, but we must up our game and ensure that opportunities to be in control of one’s future is our focus.
After a decade of austerity and year-on-year cuts, as a council we have sought as best we can to do what is needed during the pandemic – however, we know that the challenges of the future will need to be met within budgets that are under greater pressure than at any point since the London boroughs were created.
Our challenges relating to equality, education, employment, health and well-being and climate change were significant before Covid-19. The pandemic has not only exacerbated these but has introduced new impacts and effects. We will only be able to tackle these by engaging in renewed collaborative working with residents, voluntary sector organisations, our business community and other partners.
We know that economic recovery is critical to ensuring that we can deliver fundamental and lasting change in our neighbourhoods, improving the lives of our residents. We know that employment is not just important for the income that it provides. Meaningful well paid work, with opportunity for progression and a liveable wage is also critical for good physical and mental health.
The challenges faced by this generation are unprecedented and we will need everyone to pull together to ensure that our young people are supported to prosper and thrive. It requires us to build a dynamic, strong and equitable local economy, which creates and provides opportunities for local people to thrive, irrespective of their starting point.
Our approach has to be ensuring that young people themselves have a stake in how their pathways are shaped and we must support parents and families collectively to raise our young people for success. We cannot see a return to our young people being put at risk of violence and they should all feel the freedom to move and grow in this Borough.
We also know that changing the way the council works is vital to delivering excellent public services. We want to bring the council’s work to a neighbourhood level, breaking down silos between different parts of the council and ensuring that solutions that are rooted in the experiences of our diverse communities.
The council has committed to working with residents, institutions, businesses and voluntary organisation on building a recovery strategy for the borough. This will include: addressing health inequalities; supporting children and young people who have faced reduced access to educational opportunities and support; building a dynamic, strong and equitable local economy, which creates and provides opportunities for local people to thrive, irrespective of their starting point; maintaining the environmental gains of this period to deliver our climate change ambitions; and strengthening our communities through a new commitment to community groups and volunteering.
While we are committed to working with people to shape these approaches, we are also taking sustained and serious action to address the challenges our residents face now: including a youth jobs guarantee, a new community-led approach to addressing serious violence in the borough and changing the way the council works in local neighbourhoods so we are more responsive to local need.
But of course the health of the borough is not simply about how well the council is run and whether we can deliver what we need to. It is crucial that broader civic society is strengthened and supported, our community and voluntary sector, our faith community and the rich and varied ways in which people choose to connect and support each other. We have seen at large the capacity and willingness for Lambeth residents to help each other out. We will need more and a focus on supporting volunteering and sharing of the many resources we have in this borough whether that be mentoring, supporting vulnerable neighbours or in very simple ways being good citizens shopping in locally owned businesses and supporting the local economy.
To support a recovery that works for everyone, we have an ambitious agenda of investment in jobs, homes, public infrastructure and tackling climate change. Our Capital Investment Programme will see over £370 million invested over the next 5 years in the borough in schools, hospitals, libraries, parks, transport infrastructure and community facilities.
It will support ambitious economic plans for affordable workspace, good jobs and culture and leisure facilities in every part of the borough and will see record investment in making our area greener and in digital infrastructure to address the gap in digital connectivity that we’ve seen over the next few months.
We’re able to invest this money because of prudent use of the council’s resources and assets and good financial management over the last few years despite government cuts. But that investment, and our ability to support our residents as we have over the last few months, could be put at risk if the government doesn’t keep its promises to fund local authorities for the work we’ve done to fight Covid-19.
We’ve spent millions on supporting care homes, providing PPE, giving out millions to keep businesses going, making emergency transport changes to aid social distancing and delivering over 20,000 food packages to vulnerable people. But that extra spending, combined with a huge fall in income from parking, business rates and council tax, means we face a huge budget shortfall.
The government at the start of the pandemic said that councils would be fully funded and that we should spend whatever it takes. But so far, government funding covers less than half of the financial impact (£19 million of a £47 million budget shortfall). Even our most cautious estimates are that Lambeth council could face a funding crisis of £27 million – and it could be as high as £54 million as the country faces a recession and huge uncertainty. That’s more than we spend on rubbish collection, parks, libraries, leisure centres, roads, children’s centres and public health all together.
But to truly face these challenges, we must accept that for too many people, large parts of our economy and the way they interacted with society were not working for them long before coronavirus hit the UK. We do not want to simply go back the world we had before – where our residents faced deep racial and economic inequalities, precarious employment for too many and too few opportunities, a decade of underinvestment in public services and failure to take action as our climate changes. We need to take this chance to build a better future for all Lambeth residents.
Cllr Jack Hopkins