It has been over a year since the government announced Crawley would receive up to £25m as one of 100 Town Deals, yet 13 months on Crawley has not seen a penny of the money.
The government announced ‘Town Deals’ last year in the run-up to the General Election, with the stated purpose of ‘supporting towns to build prosperous futures.’
Since that time, the impact of the government’s COVID-19 restrictions coupled with their decision not to follow the example of other major economies by supporting the British aviation industry has resulted in Crawley’s economy being hit harder than any other in the UK. Yet, requests to ministers for support have failed to deliver a commitment to the area greater than the Town Deal.
Although Crawley’s economy has been hit harder by COVID-19 than any other, Crawley has been excluded the first tranche of Town Deals announced today, leaving uncertainty as to when—if ever—the funding will be made available. Furthermore, despite having been told that the maximum amount an area could bid for was £25m, the £39.5m allocated to Blackpool, suggests that much needed funding could be lost out on due to inaccurate information from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
Cllr Lamb said:
“This money was promised to Crawley before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. Since that time, Crawley’s economy has been hit harder than any other by the government’s regulations, with thousands of jobs lost, and despite the promises we have yet to see any of the funding.
“There is simply no excuse for Crawley not forming part of the first tranche of Town Deals or for the government misleading councils as to the amount they could bid for.
“Every day they delay further they costs Crawley more local businesses and more local jobs.”
No child should go hungry over Christmas. That’s why, despite MPs voting to discontinue free school meals over the holiday, Crawley Borough Council will be stepping in to put a local scheme in place.
Crawley has been hit harder by COVID-19 than any other part of the country. The government’s decision to ignore the example of almost every other major economic power by denying support to the British aviation industry, means for the first time in Crawley’s history we face large numbers of families desperately struggling to make ends meet this Christmas. Now is not the time to make things harder for them.
On the back-foot, some MPs now allege that the government has given councils money to provide food over the holidays. There is no truth to that claim. Funding has only been made available to help councils close budget deficits caused by the government’s COVID restrictions. Yet, even with the most recent funding announcement, Crawley BC’s deficit remains at £1m and guidance issued by government previously stated hardship funding should not be used to duplicate the free school meals holiday scheme.
All the energy which is being spent spinning and pointing the finger would be better used doing something about the problem. Free school meals in Crawley have always been the responsibility of West Sussex County Council, our local education authority, but that doesn’t matter right now. What matters is getting children fed. We’re having to start from scratch and we have no legal access to the data on who is eligible, but these challenges will be overcome.
We will be kicking off a crowdfunding initiative this week, with the council looking to match-fund donations. The money raised will be used to buy supermarket vouchers, which local schools can then issue to eligible families. This approach is financially achievable and it avoids all the data protection problems around reaching eligible families. Most importantly it will mean Crawley’s children get fed this Christmas. Now isn’t the time for political games, local representatives either need to get on board with the council’s local scheme, or get out of the way.
Crawley Borough Council is developing a local scheme to provide free school meals to every eligible child this Christmas. To help fund this, the council has just launched a crowdfunding page, with the council seeking to match-fund community donations.
Residents and businesses are being asked to donate money, which will be used to provide supermarket vouchers for families entitled to free school meals over the two-week Christmas holiday. In the summer, the government’s voucher scheme was for £15 per child per week.
In January, 2,511 children in Crawley were entitled to free school meals, a number which will have grown significantly over the course of the pandemic. The council is now working with local schools to identify the total number of eligible children for this Christmas.
Councillor Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council, said: “We want to ensure that no child goes hungry this Christmas, but with local authority finances decimated by Covid-19, we can’t do it alone.
“We’ve seen this week just how many Crawley residents believe the government’s decision to withdraw these meals from struggling families was wrong, now we need your help to do something about it. I would hope that large local businesses who have recently made many of these parents redundant might also consider what support they can afford to provide.
To donate, visit https://my.crawley.gov.uk/service/Crawley_Free_School_Meals
I am determined to ensure that local kids don’t go hungry this Christmas. Crawley Borough Council is not the Education Authority for Crawley, consequently we do not know who is eligible for Free School Meals. We do know the overall figure was 2,511 back in January, but given the job losses which have taken place this year, we expect that in practice the numbers are significantly higher.
I have been speaking with people at our local Education Authority (West Sussex County Council) and with local headteachers, as the people who do have access to these records, to see what we can do to together to put alternative provision in place. With half-term starting tonight and having only found out on Wednesday evening the Government would not be continuing the scheme, it has not been possible to get things in place for this week but we will be ready for Christmas. If people want to help families struggling over the half-term break, I’d ask that they donate to local food charities such as The Easter Team, Open House and Giving Back Crawley.
The reality is that local authority finances have been decimated by COVID-19 and both local councils are having to make big cuts to keep services running, meaning we will need support from the local community through crowdfunding to finance these meals, although we hope to be able to at least part match-fund from a pot of funding which the council can only use for community issues. I would certainly hope large local businesses who have recently made many of the parents of these children redundant consider what support they can offer. A crowdfunding page is in the process of being set up and it will be publicised when it is live.
I know that lots of people in Crawley are currently setting up community initiatives around this, which is great. The goal is not to replace them, but to work together to ensure that every eligible family gets the food-support they need this Christmas. The Government has let down these children, I’m confident that Crawley’s community won’t.
Even before the pandemic, a third of Crawley’s children were growing up in poverty. Now, with more families in Crawley facing unemployment than ever before, the need to ensure children from low-income households are fed through the school holidays has never been greater.
Cllr Lamb has called on the government to extend free school meals into the school holidays, including the upcoming October half term and Christmas, to ensure no child goes hungry during the coronavirus pandemic.
On Wednesday, MP’s voted down a Labour Party motion which would have extended free school meals into the holiday period, meaning 2,511 children in Crawley are now at risk of going hungry over the holidays.
The October half term comes as millions of families face a furlough cliff-edge that could see up to 40% of Crawley’s working-age population rendered unemployed.
Cllr Lamb said:
“Crawley’s economy is suffering the impact of COVID-19 harder than anywhere else in the country, the government’s unwillingness to support the aviation sector having cost the town thousands of jobs with thousands more at risk. Now more than ever we need support for low-income families to ensure the mistakes of the government don’t force children to go hungry.”
Local government has a long history in England, its earliest roots going back to William the Conqueror. Over the centuries, various responsibilities were devolved from central government, with different local boards set up to undertake them. As time went on this produced a confusing mess of overlapping structures and, at the end of Nineteenth Century, county and district councils were set up to provide democratic oversight and simplify the system by merging all previous administrative and regulatory responsibilities into two tiers of councils. One responsibility districts took on at this time was regulation of hackney carriages.
When we think of councils, we typically consider the services they provide, yet their regulatory role is vital in keeping the public safe and improving local conditions. When it comes to the regulation of hackney carriages and private hire vehicles, councils have a duty to ensure that anyone driving a Crawley Borough Council-licensed vehicle not only knows the local area well, but can be trusted to get passengers to their destination safely.
Crawley has some of the most stringent taxi licensing conditions of any authority and where drivers fail to meet these requirements, council officers are able to take enforcement action against them. The same isn’t true of Uber. Uber don’t have a license to operate in Crawley and any driver taking bookings through the app won’t be licensed by the council. Unfortunately, since 2015, Uber have been able to exploit a loophole in the legislation to operate in Crawley, without meeting local requirements and without the council being able to protect those using an Uber in same way we can with a Crawley-licensed vehicle.
We’ve been lobbying the Government to fix the loophole for some time, but with work drying up it’s Crawley’s local drivers, almost all of whom live in the town, who follow the rules and pay to maintain the licensing regime necessary to keep people safe, who are suffering every time someone opts for an Uber. Times are tough, let’s stick together as a community with the people who play by the rules, rather than supporting London drivers poaching Crawley jobs.
Since April, I have been warning that due to the impact of COVID-19 on local government finances, Crawley Borough Council will be forced to make its first cuts in six years. While the focus nationally has been on the immediate costs of tackling the pandemic, these cuts aren’t just about getting through the next year, they reflect the long-term impact of the virus on council funding.
Over the last decade, grant funding from central government has essentially ended, meaning councils can only spend what they raise locally. By 2014, Crawley’s revenue had dropped from it’s high point of £27m to just £14m, a level we maintained it at despite ongoing grant cuts throughout my time as Leader by finding new income streams.
Crawley’s funding essentially now comes from three sources: business rates, council tax and income generation. With Crawley’s economy the hardest hit in the UK, there are fewer businesses paying businesses rates, increasing numbers no longer liable for council tax due to unemployment, and no real opportunities for the council to generate new income.
The end result is we’ll be £2m worse off next year. It’s not possible for a council which had a £27m budget to maintain all the same services after a 55% cut in its revenue and over a decade’s worth of inflation. Local government is being asked to run a quarter of the UK’s public services on a shoestring. Not to depress people too much, but this is the best case scenario. Another lockdown or changes to the funding formulas and things will get even worse.
In July, both parties on the council agreed to work together to get through this crisis and we’ve already found large back office savings, but it’s not enough. As there aren’t sufficient reserves to tough this out and any council which fails to balance their budget has Government commissioners sent in to do the job, there is no alternative to frontline cuts. The options aren’t great, but they are the least harmful cuts we can find and we’d like people to let us know what they think by going to: https://crawley.gov.uk/council-information/how-council-works/consultation
Since their formation, the Centre for Cities has provided an invaluable stream of research and thinking on the economic and social issues facing the UK’s leading urban areas, one I have made extensive use of in considering how to address various opportunities challenges facing Crawley.
While we knew from the start that Crawley’s economy would be highly vulnerable to the lockdown, it was research from the Centre for Cities which first revealed the scale: that Crawley would be one of the hardest hit economies in the country.
This week, the Centre for Cities podcast is focused on the economic consequences of COVID-19 and I was invited to appear the podcast to discuss how the virus has impacted Crawley and what it means for the town’s future. You can access the podcast using the link below.
City Talks: Politicians on levelling up during the Covid-19 pandemic, Centre for Cities, 08/09/20: https://www.centreforcities.org/podcast/city-talks-politicians-on-levelling-up-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/