Bristol has been thrown a lifeline that will help plug a looming £82m black hole, but Marvin Rees warns councils are still facing a financial hit.
The mayor has said government support for cities fails to go far enough and is calling for a new way of distributing money, one that affords systems of local governance the power and certainty they need to drive economic recovery.
Local government secretary Robert Jenrick recently announced an additional £500m for local authorities and pledged to cover 75 per cent of council losses if they were more then five per cent of planned income in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Rees said this reduces the gap in the council’s finances to “in the ballpark of £20m” as opposed to the £82m originally feared but warns that coming off the back of ten years of austerity, it is “another hit”.
He said his administration is working out how that plays itself out in terms of the council’s finances.
Speaking during a press briefing on Wednesday, the mayor said other cities are worse off than Bristol as he put forward the case for greater devolved power and the need for certainty in order for councils to plan long-term.
“It’s not just about sorting out the settlement, it’s about the future funding of local government,” said Rees. “Unless this is sorted, what we are on the edge of is possibly one of the biggest concentrations of power in the country in decades. What we have seen in the last few weeks is that local government is drip-fed money and announcements, so all the power is in Whitehall.
“Our argument is that as we look to invest and spend our way out of this crisis then there has to be a mind to investing in the systems of local governance.”
The mayor said his first port of call would be to have a ‘bankable relationship’ with government that would give local authorities financial certainty for ten to 12 years.
“We know what we want to get done in terms of infrastructure,” continued Rees. “But, as local authorities, we are constantly bidding into government and we may or may not get it.
“That means we cannot plan as we would like to plan and what that does to as a local government is it makes us a less dependable partner because we cannot give the financial certainty that those organisations want and need.
“On a very basic level, that financial certainty would give us more power and influence. And we would be able to go out and leverage more money.”
It also, said the mayor, undermines the ability to deliver vital services for people in the city and social interventions, such as tackling hunger.
When asked if further cuts are expected in the future, Rees said his administration started looking at this from the beginning of lockdown and the team has done “incredibly well”.
He added: “We did have commitment from the secretary of state from the beginning, which said ‘we are with you’ and gave us some comfort, but that commitment began evaporating in all its fullness so we have begun to look more seriously at what we need to do.
“It’s not as bad as it was but it’s still bad. This is not a good day for local government finance. We are coming off the back of ten years of austerity and then we face another hit like this.
“The support we have had is not good enough and without cities there is no economic recovery, we are the drivers of the national economy.”
Main photo by CB Bristol Design