Voluntary council tax contributions help to fight COVID-19’s impact

By Rachael Robathan | 01 May 2020

Some people said it was a naïve scheme that would never work. But two years on, Westminster City Council’s voluntary community contribution scheme has brought in an extra £1 million pound – and has a found a new role in the fight against COVID-19.

MJ  readers will remember that the fund – launched in March 2018 - is supported by voluntary donations made by Westminster’s top-rate band H council taxpayers.

Those more affluent householders told us what they wanted any money raised spent on - helping young people, getting rough sleepers off the streets and tackling loneliness among the elderly. 

From a cold start, we have now raised £1m we otherwise would not have had. And as coronavirus brings normal life to a halt, we are creating a special £250,000 fund from the community contribution to help local organisations manage the coronavirus epidemic. 

Grants of up to £15,000 are being made available by the City of Westminster Charitable Trust – the independent organisation which manages community contribution funds on behalf of the council. The urgency of the crisis means the allocation of grants will be done as quickly as possible. 

Of course, you might think contributions would dry up as the economy goes into temporary cold storage and jobs are furloughed. That isn’t proving to be our experience. The usual suggested amount for a donation from a band H homeowner is just under £900 (the Westminster share of the council tax bill.) The coronavirus crisis appears to have sparked bigger donations, with two recent contributions of nearly £9,000 and £10,000 respectively. 

The community contribution’s original priorities overlap with the kinds of issues we are seeing as a result of COVID-19 - rough sleeping is shooting up and loneliness among those self-isolating is nationally recognised as a problem. 

Let me give you a flavour of where community contribution grants have gone in the last few months:

  • Riverside Street Buddies – which has hired two former rough sleepers to help people off the streets.
  • St Mungo’s - a well-known charity which helps Westminster City Council send out patrols 365 days a year to help rough sleepers away from the streets
  • Dragon Eggs Digital - a project which provides young people aged 18-25 with opportunities to work with digital technologies and develop skills for the jobs market
  • London Basketball Association’s BOOST programme - targets socially excluded, disadvantaged and vulnerable young people, particularly those with behavioural and learning difficulties and those on the margins of crime and gangs 

There was an obvious need to create a new fund which could help as part of COVID-19 work as soon as possible. There are scores of local organisations in Westminster doing very good work to help their communities, and these grants are designed to keep them going.

I have been truly humbled by the scale of the community response to the current emergency. More than 3,000 people have now volunteered to help the council and that is manifesting itself in all sorts of ways; picking up shopping, delivering hot meals to sheltered housing and even working with five-star hotel kitchens to provide free food for emergency services workers. Business is helping across the board; from McDonald’s providing free food while the Royal family hatmaker Philip Treacy turns his milliner’s art to the job of making protective visors. It is an unparalleled coming together of our community.

When this crisis recedes, the community contribution will return to doing its day job. Right now, it is becoming part of the fight to manage COVID-19. And those donating to it can be assured their money is doing what was always intended – helping the community.

 Rachael Robathan is leader of Westminster City Council

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