Voice of the Opposition: June

Once a month we will be offering the Leaders of both Medway Council and the official opposition the opportunity to talk unedited about.. well, Medway politics. Today we hear from Vince Maple, leader of Medway Labour, the official opposition on Medway Council.

This is the third Political Medway column since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK – we continue to see hundreds of individuals pass away every day.  We must never forget that behind those huge numbers are personal stories, families and friends mourning in challenging circumstances with social distancing.

This week is National Volunteering Week and I want to take this opportunity to say a very big thank you to every single person who volunteers throughout Medway – whether it’s for a sports club, uniformed youth group, homeless charity, for their faith group or any other volunteering, our community is so much richer for the amazing work that volunteers do. 

Before the lockdown there was a cross party task group looking at the issue of the voluntary sector – I’m hopeful that the report of that task group will come forward at the next Business Support Overview and Scrutiny meeting.  What was clear to me from the evidence and research carried out during that task group is that years of austerity has clearly had an impact on voluntary sector organisations and even before the pandemic that many organisations had the perfect storm of more people wanting to access their services or support, but less money to carry out that support.

There isn’t a simple solution to this but I genuinely hope this cross party report helps move the situation forward positively.  Of course, the pressures of COVID-19 have impacted all areas of the voluntary sector with less resources because fundraising opportunities like sponsorship for events like the London Marathon haven’t been forthcoming or the ongoing closure of charity shops.

We have also seen a number of small collective organisations forming up, particularly mutual aid groups which Stuart Bourne wrote about for The Political Medway.  I hope we will see the power of the community continue to be supporting each other as we eventually move to a status of recovery rather than response.

Medway Council, as I’m sure most readers of this respected local political website will know, is a unitary authority.  That means it takes on the role of both the county council and district or borough council as seen in most parts of England.  It is the reason why on lots of organisations you will see reference to “Kent and Medway” because for some things (like public health) Medway is on the same level as Kent County Council.  I often refer to Medway as the “18% of Kent that isn’t in Kent”. 

I am a huge advocate for unitary authorities, as it makes local governance clear and straight forward.  However, the impacts of COVID-19 on the council finances means that regrettably Medway is suffering shortages due to its dual responsibilities.  Most county councils are suffering financially due to increased pressures on social care.  Most districts and boroughs are suffering financially due to massive reductions in income from fees and charges on things like leisure and parking.  Medway Council will be hit by both of those.  On top of that, with the likely increase in unemployment and likely closure of businesses, the council tax and business rates bought into the council could be tens of millions short of what would be expected.

What does all of that mean – put frankly in the worst cases across the country some councils have started talking about effectively going bankrupt (the technical term for that is Section 114).  We have seen that once in recent times with Conservative controlled Northamptonshire County Council.  Councils like Windsor and Maidenhead are reported to be poised to issue a Section 114 notice as a result of the COVID-19 pressures following years of cuts in local government finance. 

I hope that Medway never has to issue a Section 114 notice, and for many years we have seen reports of the councils being millions of pounds short in balancing their budget half way through the year and having some “get out of jail free cards” in the past to deal with that at the outturn.  My concern is this year we may be all out of those options.

This year I think unless we see substantially increased support from central government to councils across England, there is a real risk we could see councils going down this route and issuing this notice.  The impacts on services could be huge.  We will continue to act as a constructive opposition, to ask challenging probing questions when it comes to financial management of this authority.

Due to the COVID-19 crisis we didn’t have an annual council (which meant we missed out on a councillor playing the organ at St Georges Centre.. yes that really happens!).  The most important item of the annual council agenda in my view is the vote of thanks for council officers.  As that wasn’t able to take place, myself and the Leader of the Conservative Group issued a joint statement recognising the tremendous efforts of hard working council staff.  I want to take this opportunity publicly to thank Medway Council staff once again, particularly for the inspirational efforts that individuals have shown during this pandemic – Medway the place is more resilient as a result of those who work for Medway Council – thank you.

It also means we have had a year of the opposition Labour & Co-operative Group.  Some readers may not be aware of the Co-operative Party, the sister party of the Labour Party.  The Co-operative Party is currently running some fantastic campaigns on issues such as food justice, closing the digital divide and fans having a say in their sports clubs.  The reason for the Co-operative Party existing is to be the political arm for the co-operative movement, committed to building a society where power and wealth are shared.  If you have never heard of the Co-operative Party I would encourage you to take a look at their website, get involved with the campaigns and maybe even consider joining.

Stay Safe.

Vince Maple is the leader of Medway Labour, the official opposition party on Medway Council, and a councillor for Chatham Central.

Leave a Reply