Covid pandemic: Council’s early ‘grip of the issues’ endorsed by government team

Eastbourne Borough Council has received praise from a government appointed team for the early intervention taken to address the devastating impact of the pandemic on council finances.

Earlier this year the council received approval for additional funding from government to help mitigate the loss of income and additional emergency costs that resulted when the country went into lockdown in March 2020.

Most recently, the process included a detailed assessment of the council’s financial management by government appointed accountants, who acknowledged the council had ‘strong officer understanding, leadership and grip of the issues’ and recognised the risk to finances ‘early, taking a number of steps to prevent the threat’.

The council has received government approval to use its capital resources of up to £6.8m in 20/21 and £6m in 21/22 to cover for the shortfall left by the pandemic in paying for the cost of its services.  The early response and actions taken by the authority meant the actual amount required is considerably reduced.

Councillor David Tutt, Leader of Eastbourne Borough Council, said: “Covid devastated the council’s multi-million pound leisure business and the shockwaves are still being felt.

“However, we always put our most vulnerable residents first and regardless of the loss of millions in ticket sales, bookings and other merchandising, we had to continue to maintain emergency support, a responsibility that represented a lifeline to so many people.

“Of course, committing extra resources to helping those most in need came with a cost and coupled with our income streams drying up, we had to take a series of very tough and painful decisions to maintain our frontline services.

“Thanks in large part to our early intervention we navigated a way through this unprecedented period in recent history and are now getting back on course to a sustainable financial footing.  It has sadly not been the case for several other councils, some of which are now run by government appointees.”

The government report requires the council to identify additional income, including through the sale of council owned assets and recommends more diversification of the local economy, to lessen the reliance on income from tourism.

Councillor Stephen Holt, Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member for Finance, said: “I have consistently said that local government is underfunded and the pressures caused by Covid-19 has only exacerbated this.

“Not that long ago we received nearly £10m every year from the government to fund local services, but that funding was stopped.

“The government turned off the taps and instead told us to operate more commercially to fill the gap.  That’s what we have done and will continue to do.  But when a global pandemic strikes and income is wiped out and costs spiral, such as support for the homeless and the provision of temporary and emergency accommodation, it is very tough to balance the books.

“We have a comprehensive recovery programme in place and have taken steps to diversify our economy including efforts to attract new tech companies to the town and it is pleasing that they recommend that this work continues.

“Looking ahead, the spectre of Omicron is causing untold worry and stress for so many, but I want to assure our most vulnerable residents that we will always be here for them.”