Lambeth council appeals for more help from Government to plug £39m shortfall

By Grainne Cuffe, Local Democracy Reporter

Lambeth council is expecting to spend £59 million as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, it emerged at an overview and scrutiny committee meeting on Tuesday.

The Government has already given the council £20 million, leaving a black hole of £39 million if no more funding is received.

Committee members grilled the council leader and cabinet members over a host of issues, including how children in care were being looked after, foster care placements, free school meal vouchers, schools reopening, and children not having access to the internet or laptops.

Members also raised concerns about shielded residents, care homes data, the protection of council staff, and housing issues emerging and expected as a result of the pandemic.

Councillor Marianna Masters said she was “very concerned” about the council’s finances in the wake of the crisis.

She said: “I’m still very, very concerned about the fact that, for whatever reason, the Government gave an early indication that we would need to spend whatever we would need to spend, and now there seems to be a reining back on that.

“The strategy that we’re hearing from your summary was very much dependent on working together with voluntary sector partners, but no one is really addressing the fact that these partners are in the most precarious times and at massive risk of not being viable.”

Andrew Travers, the council’s chief executive, said the Government must step in with additional funding.

“We know that we have a very serious issue if the Secretary of State and the Government do not meet their commitments and leave us with the additional costs that we’re incurring.

“In our latest return on finance, submitted last week, we are estimating a cost and loss of income which totals £59 million, excluding business rates, and we have so far received £20 million from Government.

“It’s absolutely clear to us and to all local government that the Government will be needing to step in with additional funding to support us and all other councils,” he said.

The Treasury is currently not commenting on speculation about future costs.

A spokeswoman said: “As the Chancellor has said, it’s too early to speculate on these things… but what we do know is that we’re facing a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty.

“What’s clear is that if we had not acted in the way that we did at the scale and speed that we did, the situation would be far worse.

“That’s something that the OBR and the Bank of England have both confirmed.”

Various conditions were agreed at the end of the two-and-a-half hour meeting, including asking for reassurance that schools can reopen safely, addressing the digital access divide among pupils, gathering information on children who have lost out on learning and ensuring a catch-up package is created, and ensuring that the experience of children under the council’s care during the pandemic is assessed and learned from.

Recommendations to maintain the community support infrastructure, invest in and support the voluntary sector, make sure older residents and those who are digitally excluded receive information from the council, and that lessons should be learned in general from the response to the Covid-19 outbreak were also approved.

The committee also agreed the council should ensure support is available for its staff, including mental health support, offer the choice to work permanently from home to shielding staff, rethink what to do with work space left vacant because of the crisis, and make sure messages from the council are reaching all residents.

Members asked that the current decision-making processes, along with the council’s stance on evictions during the pandemic be made clearer, as well ensuring that enforcement officers deal with anti-social behaviour across the borough.

A recommendation to congratulate the communications staff was also agreed, who received widespread praise during the meeting.

Council leader Jack Hopkins thanked all staff at the council, who he said “have played an absolute blinder in really difficult circumstances”.

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