Last April, when I proposed to defer becoming president of the Society of County Treasurers to this calendar year, it was on the belief the pandemic would be over. I would be back in county hall, resuming meetings across the country and being able to revel in the presidential delights of dinners and awards ceremonies. I did not imagine we would be in a third national lockdown at the peak of infections and, very sadly, the height of daily deaths.
Neither would I have comprehended the enormity of the financial impact. In Oxfordshire, just over £300m of funding has been provided to support businesses and meet the direct and additional costs, plus lost income associated with COVID in this financial year alone. I probably don’t need to tell you how laborious administration has been, with over 30 individual grant schemes, each with their own terms and conditions, reporting requirements and timeframes.
What has not surprised me is how local government has responded to the unexpected and unimaginable change in our world. Over the last year as a sector we have demonstrated we are responsive, adaptable, committed and resilient.
My worry is not the short-term funding issues, but the longer-term impacts on local government. The expected increases in mental health conditions, child protection cases, homelessness, vulnerable adults and those claiming council tax support, will all lead to increased costs. At the same time, the Government will have to plan to repay the vast amount of borrowing which has been required to meet the immediate financial needs of the pandemic. As a result, funding for local government, which is already challenging, in the long-term looks ominous.
Who knows what my presidential year will bring, but I hope it’s not spent entirely in my kitchen raising my yellow Marigolds to speak.
Lorna Baxter is president of the Society of County Treasurers and director of finance at Oxfordshire CC