<Check against delivery>
When I introduced last year’s budget I highlighted the difficult financial decisions we faced in the years ahead, as a result of continued Tory austerity.
I don’t think anyone at that point could have predicted the scale of the challenge presented by COVID-19 in the months, and year that would follow.
This has been a very difficult year for everybody, particularly for those who have lost loved ones to the virus.
Yet while our lives have changed dramatically over the last 12 months, this Government’s attitude to councils like Lewisham has not. Over the last ten years, successive Conservative governments have cut this Council’s funding and our budget has been slashed in real terms from over £400 million to just over £240 million today. A staggering reduction at a time when so many of our residents need more support.
Now, £40million worth of cuts are being imposed on Lewisham over the next three years, with £28million of those cuts required for this budget. There is no doubt that these cuts will leave us worse off as a borough, and that the blame for that lies squarely with the Conservative Government.
In order to minimise the amount of cuts we have to make and continue funding vital local services, we have also been forced by the Government to increase Council Tax. As you can imagine, this is not a decision we take lightly, but it is the only way we can ensure we are able to provide some of the public services that our borough needs.
Our budget tonight comes on the same day as the Government’s budget. The two budgets could not be more different. Despite the spin we heard from Rishi Sunak earlier today, austerity is not over and COVID has only made the situation worse for local authorities. We have the Government’s failure to provide Lewisham with fair funding, now combined with the financial impact of COVID, which means once again we are forced to make further cuts.
Yet, despite the challenging financial circumstances we face, ours is a budget that is ambitious for Lewisham and supports our residents’ priorities. Through careful financial management our budget still ensures that we can carry on the hard work of putting our Labour values into action – building new Council homes, leading the fight against the climate emergency, resettling refugees, and supporting Lewisham’s recovery from COVID-19.
While the Tories have failed to give Lewisham the support it deserves, I am proud that this Council, our Labour Council, will continue to invest in our local communities, support our most vulnerable residents and take action to tackle inequalities in the borough.
Over the past three years, we’ve seen the difference that having a Labour Council can make. Whether it is insourcing local services, adopting the UNISON ethical care charter or becoming the London Borough of Culture, we’ve shown the importance of being led by our values, being creative and working hard, even in the face of continued Tory austerity.
That’s why it is so crucial for us to set a balanced budget that reflects our priorities. In truth, if we didn’t, that would mean a budget set by commissioners sent by Robert Jenrick and Boris Johnson in Westminster – representing an out of touch Government, that doesn’t share our values or care about the problems we face in Lewisham.
I want to be clear that we do not take cuts lying down. We have a strong track record of opposing austerity in Lewisham – from fighting to save Lewisham Hospital, to protecting Free School Meals when the Government refused to, campaigning alongside Marcus Rashford and our fantastic Mayoresses. We led the fight against removing free travel for under 18s, and succeeded in getting the Government to restart the refugee resettlement scheme.
But we are now entering the eleventh year of Conservative governments, and while Prime Ministers have come and gone, the austerity agenda and relentless cuts to local government funding have continued.
So I will continue campaigning for an end to austerity and for a Labour government that will invest in our public services, support our communities, and deliver the funding that Lewisham deserves. In Keir Starmer we have a friend and ally who will help us win a Labour government again.
And when I see what we can achieve, as a Labour council, even in the most difficult times. It just reinforces to me what we could achieve if we had a Labour government too.
And I hope Lewisham residents will use the opportunity of May’s elections to send a very clear message to this government.
In concluding, I do want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of our Council staff. In increasingly difficult circumstances, they have continued to deliver an incredible quality of service for local residents and I know they will continue to do so in the years ahead.
I want to say a particular thank you to Kathy Freeman, David Austin and Katharine Nidd, and their teams, for all their work in getting us this far.
I also want to thank Councillor Amanda De Ryk for her exemplary stewardship of the budget over the last three difficult years. And to our councillors for their thoughtful and diligent input throughout this budget process, particularly given the scale of the cuts we are forced to make this year. Tonight is the end of a very long process of engagement with councillors – coming up to six months of meetings and discussions and I am grateful for all your hard work.
Speaker, I formally present our budget which safeguards our Council’s finances and ensures we are able to continue the important work of putting our Labour values into practice. But let us not forget, just how much more we could achieve, with a fair funding settlement and with a Labour government.