Cllr Janette Williamson
Wirral Labour group leader and Wirral Council's Cabinet Member for Finance & Resources
Local authorities across the country are facing a seismic shift in their finances, with many staring into an abyss. This is primarily because we are having to plug the gap in our finances caused by the extra costs of battling the COVID-19 pandemic, and the loss of income from areas such as leisure, parking and other fees which usually support vital frontline services. Wirral Council is not alone in facing difficult decisions as the authority seeks to balance its books and develop a plan to deal with a massive financial black hole. The recently reported estimated budget gap for Wirral Council this year was more than £30 million.
This means everything that the council does is being reviewed. Even those services the council has a legal duty to provide are being re-assessed to ensure they are as efficient as possible through a massive reappraisal of every service provided by Wirral Council. But even at this stage we know some extremely tough decisions will have to be made in all but those areas which the council has a legal duty to provide – and even those may face reduction where an enhanced service is currently provided.
A broad range of proposals for decision makers to review will be presented to the individual Service Committees following the first meeting of the new, cross-party, Policy & Resources committee which meets in October for councillors to work together to begin making decisions on how Wirral will balance its budget this year and into the future. We will also be seeking the views of Wirral residents on the proposals as they are developed.
Some additional financial support was announced by the Government, whereby a proportion (up to 75% of net losses over a specific threshold) of income losses from fees and charges caused by the impact of COVID-19 will be met by central government. We are also in constant dialogue with ministers and civil servants – like other councils – and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) are aware that the whole local government sector needs more help. But before any assistance can be provided MHCLG will demand to know what we as a council have done to help ourselves.
The increased scale of the financial challenge Wirral now faces is not of its own making, it is the cost of keeping our residents safe and well during the Covid pandemic. This is not the time for political parties to score cheap points. We must work together for the good of our residents, those residents we were all elected to serve. The new committee system presents an opportunity for all political parties to actively participate in the budget setting process. I will strive to work across the parties in a collegiate and positive way and expect the same commitment back.