On 4th March 2020 the Council announced its budget for the 2020/21, setting out its planned income and expenditure for the year ahead. In less than three months the situation has changed beyond recognition, but councillors are left in the dark about the scale of the new financial challenge.
Since the pandemic hit Council services have had to step up to address the huge challenges supporting vulnerable people, dealing with a massive spike in rough sleeping (the largest in the country) and much more, all while adapting to remote working. In normal times Westminster Council’s finances are particularly reliant on income generation- it has the highest parking income in the UK (£69m profit in the most recent figures, £13m more than it raised last year in council tax and more than seven times the amount raised by neighbouring Brent) and parking tickets have fallen to about 10% of normal levels (overall parking revenue is about 50% of its normal levels), it relies significantly on commercial income from property, fee income from host major events, commercial waste and other earnings impacted by Covid-19.
Since early April Labour has been asking to see what information the Council was keeping about its new financial situation, on a confidential basis if required, so that we could effectively scrutinise what the Council is or isn’t able to do to support communities in Westminster, both now and in the difficult months to come.
In mid-April and mid-May all Councils in the country were required to give detailed financial information (17 pages for the May submission) to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government- the ‘Covid-19 local authority financial management information’. This required Westminster Council to prepare precise figures for increased expenditure (across 32 specific areas of Council Spending) and 14 specific areas of lost Council Income for March, April, May 2020 and projections for the full financial year 2020/21. Both Cabinet Member for Finance Cllr Melvyn Caplan and Council Leader Rachael Robathan claimed that they haven’t seen the figures the Council has provided to the Government, a bafflingly complacent approach under the circumstances.
Many Councils have chosen to make this information public, to highlight the need for greater support from the Government. Westminster’s Conservative leadership have chosen not to do so, their prerogative, though it is disappointing they are not willing to publicly help make the case for better funding to their Government. It is however completely unacceptable to deny councillors the right to know information that the council has already shared with Government on multiple occasions about the council’s finances. They are blocking the ability of opposition councillors to fully scrutinise the critical decisions the Conservatives are making about the extent to which the Council is able to support residents, voluntary sector organisations and local businesses at this time of crisis.
Westminster Labour Group Leader Cllr Adam Hug said “Either Westminster Conservatives are arrogant enough to think they are above scrutiny and that everyone else has to take their decision making at this time of crisis simply on trust, or they are hiding the true scale of the crisis facing the Council’s finances. We know the Government’s support package for local Government has been woefully inadequate and that Westminster Council is particularly reliant on income. Why are they unwilling to say what is really going on?”