Lewisham Council is planning to up its engagement with residents to explain the stark financial strain Covid-19 has put on its budget. 

Councillors stressed during a meeting of the overview and scrutiny business panel on Tuesday (June 23) that local people need to understand the “depth and breadth” of what it took to keep services going, while also giving thanks to the voluntary and community sector, which the council “could not have managed without”. 

The panel, along with council bosses, discussed the need to make plans on the future of services, the delivery of which are expected to change post-Covid-19.  

At the last business panel meeting, it emerged that the council’s estimated funding gap from the pandemic – £20.2 million – represents more than all of its unallocated reserves of £20 million.  

Councillor Jim Mallory, outgoing chair of the public accounts committee, set out recommendations for the report presented at the meeting, heavily focusing on community engagement.   

He praised the voluntary sector for their role in supplementing care services during the pandemic, and said the council must send out a message “very soon” that “says to them, without you we wouldn’t have managed to deal with this crisis as well as we have”.   

He reiterated the point on Tuesday, urging officers to let the public know this summer what the council has been doing, and how the voluntary and community sector has helped “even if it’s only welcoming, supportive, and beginning the process of telling them the things we do”. 

“It’s really important that we find a way of letting people know just how much the council and its partners have had to do […] 

“Most people do appreciate [how much], but they probably wouldn’t know the totality of it.  

“What we need is a communications strategy […] letting people know, reminding them in a real, personal way, the things that have gone on and what we’ve had to do in order to make sure that services are maintained.” 

He urged officers not to do it in a “patronising way”, but to “give credit where it's due, and it’s due to the community and frontline workers”. 

Cllr Mallory said it should be a communications strategy “so comprehensive that everybody understands just what we have done to achieve what we have, but at the same time highlights for them just how difficult it’s going to be and the support that we’ve had we really appreciate because without them we wouldn’t have managed it”. 

Backing Cllr Mallory, cabinet member for finance and resources, Cllr Amanda DeRyk, said: “We need to do our best to make sure residents understand the depth and breadth of and therefore cost of the response that the council has very instinctively undertaken on behalf of residents.” 

Officers confirmed a communications strategy was being prepared, and there “will certainly be something out over the summer”.  

The ongoing concerns about the council’s financial position were discussed, while one councillor asked if local authorities could bring legal action against the Government. 

The Government initially promised to cover councils’ costs for tackling the pandemic, but has appeared to backtrack.  

A spokesperson said the Treasury “announced unprecedented support for public services, workers and businesses to protect against the current economic emergency”, including £3.2 billion of additional funding for local authorities. 

Scrutiny member Cllr Juliet Campbell said: “Is there anything we can do, and local authorities can do collectively, to try and recoup this money that the Government has promised? 

“It just seems really bizarre that they said ‘whatever it takes, we’re all in this together’, and then they changed their mind and we have to just take it.  

“I’m really surprised that the Government can get away with that.” 

She added: “The Government cannot make this promise and leave us so many millions of pounds out of pocket for something that is global. 

“It’s not a Lewisham issue, it’s not an individual borough issue, so is there anything we can do, demand, take them to court?” 

Katharine Nidd, interim director of corporate resources, said the council was lobbying and sharing information with other boroughs.  

“I’m not aware of the ability to take them to court but what we are doing very actively is lobbying [Government], and collectively what we’re doing as councils at officer level is all about the returns to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the networking, benchmarking, and sharing of information […] we’re being very vocal in our response back to central Government with what the true cost of this is,” she said.  

Ms Nidd said a stabilisation budget will go to mayor and cabinet, followed by full council, in the autumn.  

“Officers will work hard over the summer to understand what the financial impact of Covid will be,” she said.  

Changes to services – “savings cuts” – are expected.  

The council will be consulting with the public and relevant sectors in the autumn to determine what those changes will be.