"On the 16 March this year, the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick MP told 300 Council leaders that the Government would do “whatever is necessary” to support local councils like Welwyn Hatfield to help the most vulnerable in society and support their local economy. Does the Leader of the Council or the Executive Member for Finance believe Welwyn Hatfield will receive whatever assistance is necessary?”
Councillor D.Bell (Executive Member, Resources) answered :-
“Thank you for your question, Councillor Hayes.
We have already received a considerable amount of central government support, financial and otherwise, to help this Council provide support to residents and the local economy in response to the Covid pandemic.
I will not dwell in detail in this response on the various ways in which the Council is helping the vulnerable and supporting the local economy. This is far better explained in the report presented under agenda Item 8 for discussion later tonight, and I prefer to avoid duplication.
Whilst elements of the response set out in that report has to be funded from our own resources, it is worth highlighting where government funding has helped support the efforts detailed in the report.
· We have administered 100% business rate relief for the 2020/21 financial year to businesses in the retail, leisure, and hospitality sector, funded by government.
· We have distributed £14.9 million of government funded grants to 1,101 businesses in the borough, and we are currently disbursing further sums through the government-funded discretionary grants scheme.
· We have received £1.48 million of non-ring fenced General Fund support from the government. Further funding has been announced to compensate councils for lost income, but details of the allocation are not yet available.
· Government support has been provided to increase the amount of council tax discount that can be claimed by existing claimants.
· We have received government funding to help us house all homeless in the borough. As noted in the report for agenda item 8, further housing funding has been announced, although details are still awaited.
· We have been granted an extension on the requirement to remit unspent Right-to-Buy receipts until 31 December, 2020. This should take some pressure off the HRA.
· As members will be aware, on top of schemes administered by the Council, the government is providing considerable direct monetary support to the economy. Perhaps one of the most significant elements of this is the Job Retention Scheme, which has been supporting the wages of 9 million furloughed employees across the UK, and 2.7 million of the self-employed. Further funding has recently been announced for Arts and Culture, although the details of the amount relevant to WHBC are not yet known.
As set out in the report for agenda item 8, we continue to carefully monitor the financial impact on this Council. An initial paper on the estimated financial impact has already been distributed to members, and provided to Cabinet in May. An update will be provided to members in August 2020, at which point we will have been able to assess the 1st quarter financial outturn.
The budget process for the 2021/22 financial year, which will get underway later this year, will be more than usually challenging. However, as things stand, I believe this Council has the reserves and financial strength to see this crisis through.
Councillor Hayes asks me if I believe that the government will provide all necessary assistance to Welwyn Hatfield Council. I prefer to answer this honestly, in that I believe the government will provide all that it realistically can.
Unfortunately, the scale of the financial impact of this pandemic, which will be long-lasting, is such that no government anywhere in the world can promise to indemnify all individuals, businesses, public authorities, or other organisations against all loss. Councils will undoubtedly have to bear some of the financial burden themselves. But as I have said, as things stand, I believe we have the financial strength and reserves to do so.”
Councillor Hayes in a supplementary question asked can you actually say what the figure is that we believe is necessary to help the most vulnerable in our society and support our local economy and whether or not you honestly think half of that figure will be met to support Welwyn Hatfield by the government?
Councill Bell answered as the estimates circulated in May showed there will be significant impact but we do have the reserves to absorb it, we are expecting more support in the form of income compensation but we do not know when. But even without taking that into account our reserves remain intact, we are not facing bankruptcy or a Section 114 notice, furthermore we are not planning as part of next year’s budget process that the Council will have to cut services or capital projects so we can continue to help the most vulnerable in the way we are doing now. The issue is we will have to start rebuilding our reserves to an extent but that depends on what the details of the latest government statement amount to. The Council had been through an analysis of the impact of the pandemic so far. Based on what has happened so far, based on estimates on how long it will take businesses and the Council’s finances to recover, at the moment we can absorb this, we don’t have to cut our front line services or capital projects, some of our services have been disrupted by the lockdown, some of our capital projects have been delayed but not for financial reasons.