The pandemic is putting unprecedented pressure on the council’s budget, currently leaving a £10million shortfall in funding. This might end up increasing further, as the government continues to fail to reimburse us for doing whatever it takes to support residents, particularly our most vulnerable, through Covid-19
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a year ago, the council has been working tirelessly to support our community through one of the toughest times in living memory.
Our adult social care teams have supported around 7,000 vulnerable people and their carers, and young people have continued to receive care and free school meals if eligible. Merton was one of the most successful councils in the country at providing financial support to businesses who were struggling to get by. The council has worked closely with the NHS to provide testing facilities and support the vaccination effort. The council also ensured that statutory services, such as refuse collections, have continued without interruption and that parks and green spaces have remained open throughout the pandemic.
The council will continue to do whatever it takes to provide support to vulnerable residents and families who are relying on food banks to be able to eat.
So far, Covid-19 has cost the council £30.7m, and we have been reimbursed £21.4m. Together with other London boroughs, we are doing everything we can to lobby the government to reimburse the money so we can balance our budget and keep vital services running in future years. The fact is that this shortfall is compounded by more than ten years of chronic under-funding from the government.
The Government has said that local authorities can only access an increase in spending power it says we need if we increase Council Tax. So, like many local authorities across the country, Merton Council has been left with no alternative but to put up council tax by 4.99% in 2021/22, effectively a Covid Tax. Without any increase of council tax, the council would have been forced to make even greater cuts than those already proposed.
However, our business-like approach to managing the council’s budget has meant that in 2021/22, the council is able to extend our council tax support scheme for the ninth year running. This will help to bridge the gap between residents on low incomes as well as people who have become unemployed as a result of the pandemic and those who have been able to remain working in better paid employment. The council has seen a significant increase in the number of people accessing this support in the past year, as many families across the borough have been impacted by the pandemic.
The pandemic follows a decade of austerity, which has seen the government cut grant funding to councils by 40% since 2010. This has left local authorities without enough money to cover the increasing need for vital services, in particular those supporting older people, those with disabilities, and children with additional needs.
Merton Council’s Cabinet Member for Finance, Councillor Tobin Byers, said: “As it has been for the past 12 months, the council’s immediate priority is to do everything it takes to support our borough, particularly the most vulnerable residents, through the pandemic.
“So far, we have spent tens of millions of pounds on the response to Covid and we are making every effort to get this money reimbursed by the government, so that we can balance our budget and keep vital services running. Unfortunately, due to the Government’s failure to fully recompense us for our response to the pandemic, we have been left with no choice but to propose a series of Covid cuts to services and what amounts to a Covid Tax, raising council tax in line with the Government assumptions.
“As we have taken a business-like approach to our finances, the council has been able to keep our most valued services running, but it will not be easy in the future – we need to find ways to fill a void of millions of pounds left by left by years of austerity and the costs of the pandemic. We will be counting the cost of Covid for many years to come.”