Winter is coming, the clocks have altered and the days are getting much shorter. As I write this Covid-19 numbers are increasing and another four week lockdown has been announced.
I am picking up a much greater divergence of opinion on Covid-19 now. There appear to be an increasing number of people saying that we need to accept that we are just going to have to get used to living with the virus. Yet, there are still many people extremely worried about catching the virus. The next month may be a time of increasing tensions and we will all have to appreciate that people may have very different views for very valid reasons.
I cannot help but think that this will be the last time such drastic action as a lockdown can be taken. It appears to me as though the emerging reality is that, even if there is a vaccine and it is effective, we are going to have to recognise that Covid-19 will become endemic, a bit like flu. There appears to be a reluctance to consider what this means and how we all have to adapt to a new situation. There will, I suspect, be no easy answers and no “magic bullet”.
For our District there is no doubt that the month long lockdown will increase the damage to our local economy. Hospitality, tourism and retail will again be hard hit. Unemployment will inevitable increase and any recovery will be pushed even further into the future. There is an inevitability that the majority of us will have to get used to being poorer.
It is amazing how much bad news one can get into four short paragraphs. However, denial and a refusal to face reality is the worst possible response.
I have said before that we have a good Cabinet team and a good officer team. We have no doubts as to the scale of the challenges we face.
On the subject of challenges; we are now turning our minds to the Council Budget for 2021/22 and the Medium Term Financial Plan, which runs for five years from 2021/22. Even before the announcement of the lockdown the picture did not look good. We have established a cross party Council Recovery Advisory Group to ensure that we fully understand the position and that we appreciate the scale and nature of decisions that we will have to take. There is much detailed analysis work underway. The missing part of the equation at the moment is the level of funding that we will receive from central government and the scope we will have for raising council tax. Until we have that information, which we may not get until January then we will not know the scale of the actions we have to take. We will, however, be fully prepared.
It is the uncertainty over funding that is the major issue now. There is absolutely no doubt that we will have to increase council tax by as much as we are allowed and we will probably still have to reduce services. As I said, the Council recovery Advisory Group is cross party and it is interesting how silent the Lib-Dems are when the reality of the situation is laid out before them.
Contributing to the uncertainty is the fact that increases in unemployment reduce the tax base, so, in the short term we will take a big hit from rapidly increasing unemployment across the District.
Our reserves will provide some breathing space, but that’s what it is, time to deliver the savings we will have to make.
The sense I get is that central Government has not fully grasped the impact of Covid-19 on district council finances. County councils on the other hand appear to have been well funded.
Working together with Warwick District to create a “Super District” and the potential cost savings that will unlock assumes increased significance. Work on joint procurement of a new waste contract is now well underway and will be a significant help in containing costs in the medium term. This will probably be a 7 year contract and the costs will be in the 10’s of millions of £’s. Warwick and ourselves have now pretty much got agreement on a common approach to the contract.
One action we desperately need to take is to invest in the future. This is difficult when our finances are crippled. We are working very hard to secure funding from external sources. There is though few obvious sources of funding and the impression we get is that government is beginning to realise the scale of the spending it is committed to.
However, what is not helpful is the picture people have of Stratford on Avon as an extremely prosperous area that does not need short term help. This is why it has been so important to get across the message that we are the fourth hardest hit local authority in the country and the worst hit in the West Midlands. It appears to take time for the message to really sink in. My view is that we need short term help to get us over two potentially difficult years then we will bounce back.
Our recovery will depend on the resilience, adaptability and skills of our people. Despite all the short term issues there are there is a strong foundation on which we can build. These strengths give me great confidence in our future. Meanwhile we will do our very best to navigate safely through the storms that are upon us.
For us what is critical is to take the tough decisions that need to be taken early, demonstrate competence, and, above all, once we have decided on a course of action that everyone gets behind it and we have the courage to see it through. It’s not going to be easy or plain sailing.