Ipswich Labour council leader to Tory MP: 'Let's stop sniping'
- Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND/SARAH LUCY BROWN
Since he was elected to Parliament in 2019, I have become used to Tom Hunt sniping from the sidelines at me and Ipswich Borough Council.
I’ve tried not to reply to every comment, as I know that most people don’t find politicians taking pot shots at each other particularly edifying.
However, Mr Hunt’s last column contained so much that I believed was misleading – could it possibly be that we have elections coming up? – that I felt I had to respond.
Our MP’s main contention is that the government has been very generous to Ipswich Borough Council, has more than made up any financial shortfalls from Covid and that any budgetary problems are, presumably, entirely our own fault.
This is simply not true.
Every single council in the country has seen its finances hit hard by Covid for two main reasons.
The first is that Covid has required councils to spend a lot of money to help their residents.
In Ipswich, this includes delivering more than 1,000 food parcels to vulnerable households, staffing the Home But Not Alone helpline, delivering the “Everyone In” scheme to provide shelter for homeless people and putting in place extra cleaning so we can keep public toilets open. We have had to spend additional money to make services Covid-secure.
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The second hit to council finances has been a big drop in income.
In Ipswich, the Regent and Corn Exchange have been completely shut throughout the pandemic. Sports centres and swimming pools have been shut for long periods of time and have had significantly reduced capacity when open. Car parking income has fallen to virtually nothing during each lockdown.
Income from council tax has fallen as more people become unemployed and from business rates as businesses fail.
Put these together and we are predicting a hit of around £16million to the borough council from Covid. We have currently received around £10m from the government towards this cost.
This is certainly a significant amount and the council would have been in serious trouble if we hadn’t received it.
But it still leaves a very large £6m gap and is a long way from the promise that secretary of state Robert Jenrick made to all councils at the start of the pandemic - that we would be fully compensated for the costs of Covid.
This is not a controversial or even a party-political point. Council leaders from all political parties believe that Robert Jenrick has broken his promise to them.
Mr Hunt tries to claim this isn’t the case by mentioning two sums of money the government has given to Ipswich.
The first is the £25m Town Deal that has just been announced. This is indeed very welcome, but under government rules it can only be used for specific projects. It can’t be used for plugging the £6m Covid gap.
The other £33.5million figure Mr Hunt uses is in my view extremely misleading because the vast majority of this is for national schemes to help businesses and individuals that the council distributes on the government’s behalf.
The council doesn’t see a penny of this cash – but it does cost us additional money to administer.
It is concerning that our Member of Parliament displays such a poor grasp of local government finance. It’s even more concerning that he uses this lack of knowledge to make misleading statements about the council.
Mr Hunt says he would like to have better communications with me. I think that would be an excellent idea but would just gently point out that it was he who put a stop to the regular weekly phone calls we had at the start of Covid.
The fact is, since I became leader of the council, I have worked with both Conservative and Labour MPs. It has always been the case that Ipswich has benefited most when the council and the MP have worked together.
A prime example of this is the Town Deal funding Ipswich has recently won.
You may not have gained this impression from our MP’s media statements, but it was Ipswich Borough Council who put forward the majority of projects, wrote business cases for them and actually submitted the successful bid.
The £25million Ipswich won was the fourth highest award out of the 45 towns that received funding in this round – not a bad result for a council that is claimed to be so poor.
So, come on Mr Hunt - let’s stop the sniping. Let’s stop the misleading statements. Instead, let us work together for the benefit of Ipswich.
It is, after all, what most people in our town want to see from their elected representatives.