Last week marked a significant turning point in Lambeth local politics. After years of denial and sticking their heads in the sand, the Conservatives in Lambeth finally acknowledged that the council has suffered significant cuts in our funding from central government. After years of waiting for them to accept it, I had started to think that they’d never notice.
Sadly, the revelation was mixed with the same absence of understanding about the council and our budget that we’ve got used to hearing from the Conservatives at our Council meetings. The focus of their argument is on the actual percentage cut in our funding from central government. We have consistently made clear to our residents that our government funding has been cut by 56% - these are the official figures, reflecting the government’s austerity agenda towards local government. This covers the period from 2010-2020.
Now, the government’s continued U-turns on their plans do mean the future year figures are estimated and subject to change. For example, just two months ago, the government cut the funding for new homes in our borough, switching it instead to a last-minute grant for adult social care after forgetting the entire issue in the Autumn Statement. Sadly, Lambeth does not benefit from the grant and it is no answer to the Tory social care crisis.
But overall the budget figures are an accurate representation of the impact of Tory austerity on our borough. They are also in line with the picture you see across London. London Councils, the cross party organisation representing all the councils in London, estimate that core funding will have fallen by 62% in real terms over the decade to 2019-20.
The leader of the Conservatives in Lambeth tries to confuse the picture, by arguing that we should include income from parking and council tax (which we raise ourselves) or housing benefit (which we administer on behalf of the government with no control over). Of course, the latter has increased dramatically, with the amount paid out to claimants increasing by 20% since 2010. This is due to spiralling rents paid to private landlords, the cost of the Tories utter failure to tackle the housing crisis. Of course, I wouldn’t expect our local Tories to understand that – they fully supported the appalling Housing Bill which will make London an even less affordable place to live than now and have nothing to say to the thousands of people on the local housing waiting list.
Indeed, it has become increasingly clear that they have nothing to say about any of the issues that matter to Lambeth residents. Councillor Briggs is happy to write to the readers of Conservative Home about “Loony Lambeth” – but last night at our Cabinet meeting, when my colleagues set out our concerns about the impact of saving millions in our budget due to Tory cuts, he just sat in the audience and laughed, refusing the opportunity to speak.
Lambeth deserves better than a party that cheerleads for local government cuts to Tory blogs and then has nothing to say to our residents about their impact. That’s why we’ll continue to deliver for our residents – by tackling inequality, delivering inward investment, improving our neighbourhoods and working with our residents to keep services open despite Tory cuts.
But I’ll never apologise for making clear to people that this government has cut the money it gives us by 56%. Councillor Briggs and his party don’t want people to know that, hoping that this government’s strategy of blaming local authorities for their own party’s cuts will pay off.
But it is a strategy that is looking increasingly desperate. Across the country, from politicians of all parties at the LGA to Tory MPs in Parliament and even in Conservative-run Surrey where a referendum on 15% council tax is planned, there is a welcome recognition that this government’s cuts to local services have gone too far and are pushing services to the brink. As I said at council last week, I even joined a Conservative leader to lobby the Minister for Local Government recently to change course.
I hope the Tories new-found interest in the budget figures is a sign that they’re willing to join that consensus and that they’ll start to work with us to stand up for the services that our residents care about. But on the evidence so far, I won’t be holding my breath.
Councillor Lib Peck
Leader of Lambeth council