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Islington leader tells chancellor to fund councils – says severe cuts to front-line services ‘three years away’

PUBLISHED: 11:52 24 October 2018 | UPDATED: 11:53 24 October 2018

Cllr Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council. Picture: Em Fitzgerald

Cllr Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council. Picture: Em Fitzgerald

Em Fitzgerald

Islington Council is three years away from making serious cuts to front-line services without a government u-turn on funding, leader Richard Watts told the Gazette.

Cllr Watts has written to the chancellor Philip Hammond ahead of Monday’s Budget asking him to end austerity-driven cuts to councils across the UK.

Since 2010, Islington Council has been forced to making savings of £225 million due to a 70 per cent reduction in government funding and rising demand for the services.

Over the next three years, there could be another £50m. And that, Cllr Watts says, is not sustainable.

Speaking to the Gazette, he said: “Theresa May has promised an end to austerity but in the unlikely event she doesn’t keep her promise we are very worried about the impact on the council services of yet another year of cuts.

“We are anticipating another quite severe cut of close to £20million, if it is anything like what the government has previously indicated.

“Islington isn’t yet one of the councils where there is concern about it’s ongoing financial security. We are not bankrupt in the way Northamptonshire are and work very hard to protect services people value the most – in Islington that’s helping the most vulnerable people.

“Not next year, but within a couple of years after that there is a risk of having to resort to making deeper cuts into services people really value.”

Cllr Watts said he wouldn’t go into specifics to avoid “scaremongering”, but added: “We can’t carry on with the range of services currently available.”

The leader said the government’s take on the funding crisis was to raise more money through council tax, and conceded another reclutant rise was likely next year.

“We absolutely recognise it’s a regressive tax,” he said. “But you have to weigh it up. It’s a moderate increase to protect services.”

Housing

It wasn’t all bad news though. Cllr Watts said the lifting of the borrowing cap for home building was a “rare bit of good news”.

“We’re not going to break out the Champagne bottles until we hear the details but the mood music has been quite positive,” he told the Gazette. “But it would allow us to seriously turbo charge our building. It’s ludicrous they have made it so hard.”

Cllr Watts said it was too early to put figures on how many new homes could be built should the borrowing cap be lifted as expected in the Budget.

But when pressed on whether it would enable the council to provide homes for everyone on the 18,300-strong waiting list, he replied: “There are something like 3,000 households in critical need and it will give us a realistic chance to start meeting demand for them.”

He also explained that every time a new family-sized home was built it had a knock-on effect that could get two-to-four families off the list.

One thing he did rule out was taking advantage of the likely new borrowing powers to buy the Holloway Prison site.

“I don’t think giving £100million north back to the government for the site is value for money,” he said.

A recent consultation with councils on the use of Right to Buy receipts has also ended. Currently, Islington has to spend its receipts on housing, but can only fund 30pc of any development with it and cannot combine it with other funding grants. Any money it hasn’t spend has to be given to the government after three years, with interest.

Cllr Watts said: “It would be very good news indeed if we saw some progress on that.”

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