On Wednesday night Lewisham Council came together to pass our budget for the coming year. In this budget I am proud that Lewisham Labour will continue to invest in our local communities by building council and social homes, delivering our exciting programme for the Borough of Culture 2022 and continuing to lead the fight against the Climate Emergency. However, it is also a budget where we are being forced to make £40m of cuts over the next three years due to the Conservatives slashing local government funding year after year.
Where possible we have tried to ensure that we can find this extra £40m by ensuring value for money in our contracts – delivering the same service but for less. However, after 10 years of austerity and £190m of cuts already made, there is only so far this will take us. Rishi Sunak has also forced us to increase council tax too, in order to minimise the amount of cuts we have to make. We know that due to COVID-19 this is a difficult time for many so I wish to reassure residents that there are support schemes in place for those struggling to pay.
Over the last decade where Lewisham Council spends its money has dramatically changed. Today, 70% of our general spending is in three main areas: adult social care, children’s social care and public health. We have to spend money in these areas and it is crucial that our most vulnerable residents receive the care and support they need. However, that leaves just 30% for everything else collecting the bins, running the libraries and leisure centres as well as our parks and the hundreds of other services that we all use and rely on.
The financial challenges we face in Lewisham are not unique. Local authorities across the country are facing the same challenges and this year alone four councils have effectively gone bankrupt, including Conservative run councils. But due to our careful financial management Lewisham will set a balanced budget.
I know many will ask why do we not refuse to implement these cuts? Unlike the Government or the NHS, councils legally have to set balanced budgets. Failure to do so would result in Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party writing Lewisham’s budget from Westminster rather than your local councillors here in Lewisham. It would result in a budget that would not meet our Labour values whether that is building council homes, investing in youth services or being an anti-racist council.
Throughout the pandemic we have seen billions wasted by the Tories with questionable contracts to the private sector. Meanwhile local government, despite the Government’s earlier promises, has not even had all of the additional costs of the pandemic covered. Despite this the council has responded incredibly. Overnight Lewisham Council had to ensure that 12,000 residents on the shielding list could access food and medicine, whilst our public health team’s local track and trace system has operated at a fraction of the price of the privatised national system and been more successful. This gives me hope for what we can achieve when we have a different government that invests in public services and local communities.
As your Mayor, I promise to continue campaigning against Conservative austerity for the funding that Lewisham deserves. Over the last ten years Lewisham Labour has had many successes in fighting back. I will never forget how the whole community united to campaign against the closure of Lewisham Hospital or when we led the campaign to save free travel for school children in London and I am most proud of when we stepped up to support Marcus Rashford’s campaign to provide free school meals over half term when Boris Johnson refused to.
We are now entering the eleventh year of continuous Conservative governments. Whilst three Prime Ministers have come and gone the relentless approach to austerity has remained a constant. At the council we all fight every day against these cuts, but as long as we have a Tory government the cuts will continue, no matter how hard we campaign in Lewisham. Ultimately, the only way we can stop these cuts is to work together and elect a Labour government.
Damien Egan, Mayor of Lewisham