Barnet leader Rawlings slams “financially illiterate” Conservatives in council funding row

As national debate raged on support for local authorities, Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer said Barnet Labour had shown an “inability to responsibly manage existing budgets” reports David Floyd

Hendon Town Hall and (inset) council leader Barry Rawlings
Hendon Town Hall and (inset) council leader Barry Rawlings

Barnet’s council leader has accused local Conservatives of being “financially illiterate” after the borough’s MPs sought to blame the authority’s funding challenges on his Labour administration. 

This week has seen a national debate on funding for councils after more than 40 (mostly Conservative) MPs signed an open letter backing a call by the County Councils Network for the government to provide extra funding due to: “the unprecedented level of inflation and demand for services.”

The letter prompted yesterday’s announcement by levelling up, housing and communities secretary Michael Gove that an additional £600 million would be made available to councils. A sum that London Councils, which represents councils across the capital, has described as “insufficient”

Before the announcement was made, Barnet Post asked the borough’s MPs and parliamentary candidates what their position was on the calls for increased central government funding – and for their views on the current financial battles facing Barnet Council, described in November as “an unprecedented crisis”.

The strongest criticism of the council came from Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green, Mike Freer, who is also minister for courts and legal services in Rishi Sunak’s government. 

“Wasting money on politically motivated schemes” – Freer

Freer told Barnet Post: “I’m supportive of any legitimate funding request by local authorities if it can be demonstrated how this will benefit residents. With regard to Labour-run Barnet, however, they’ve thus far shown a complete inability to responsibly manage existing budgets, despite being on a robust financial footing from the previous Conservative administration (something Council leader Rawlings himself has admitted).

He added: “Barnet’s borrowing limit has had to be increased to £1 billion to make room for their increasing overspends, with pillaged reserve accounts in immediate need of replenishment. They’re wasting taxpayer money on politically motivated schemes such as a citizen’s assembly (£100,000) and changing their governance system to concentrate power in the hands of a few councillors (£100,000). 

“They’re also currently spending undisclosed millions to bring back services from Capita. This is to say nothing of the vast amount being spent to make Barnet a net-zero emitter within 6 years, an unnecessarily immediate deadline when considering the UK’s national target is to achieve net zero by 2050.

“Before there can be any substantive discussions around increased funding from central government, Labour-run Barnet first need to prove they can manage their budgets responsibly, something that I am eager to see as a Barnet MP.”

“Disruptive new bus lanes” – Villiers 

Freer’s fellow Conservative, Chipping Barnet MP Theresa Villiers, seemed more sympathetic to the council’s plight saying: “Of course I want to see funding for Barnet Council increase. I’ve repeatedly made the case for this over many years and also helped secure financial support for specific projects. 

“Recent national funding settlements have delivered a significant increase in spending power, including extra help with social care costs. That said, I appreciate that increasing social care need and rising prices continue to put pressure on the council’s budget.” 

However she added: “But as well as extra resources from central government, we need to see Barnet Council improving efficiency and spending money more wisely, not on projects like unwanted and disruptive new bus lanes.”

Conservative Harrow has “efficient services” and “new pavements” – Jogia 

Hendon MP Matthew Offord did not respond to Barnet Post’s request for comment but the Conservative candidate to succeed him, Ameet Jogia did respond. 

He acknowledged the seriousness of the problem but sought to draw a negative comparison between Labour-run Barnet and Conservative-run Harrow (where he is a councillor). He said: “Councils are the backbone of their communities and carry out tremendous work every day in delivering vital services to the people they serve, but I recognise they are facing challenges.

“I know the government [is] considering responses to the consultation on next year’s finance settlement carefully and will announce final details in the coming weeks.

“But let’s be clear, the provisional settlement makes available £64 billion for councils next year – an above-inflation average increase of 6.5%.”

He added: “Ultimately it is for councils to manage their own budgets, not for government. And what you have seen across the country is Labour and Lib Dem councils going bankrupt, spending money they don’t have and Conservatives delivering good services.

You don’t even have to look far to see that contrast, because right here Labour-run Barnet Council are going down the pan, compared to Conservative-run Harrow who are delivering great, efficient services across the borough, including new pavements.”

Responding to the range of criticisms provided by the Conservatives, Rawlings, who led Labour to power at last year’s local elections said the current overspend was due to rising demand for services. 

“The same issue is being seen in councils up and down the country” – Rawlings

He told Barnet Post: “Once again, the Barnet Conservatives reveal just how financially illiterate they really are.”

He added: “The budget overspend is driven by an increase in high-cost demand-led statutory services, mainly in adults’ social care, which we are legally required to provide.

“The same issue is being seen in councils up and down the country, which is why 44 Conservative MPs – including seven former cabinet ministers – signed the County Councils Network letter calling for more funds for local government, and why the Government announced only yesterday an emergency package of £500 million for adults’ social care.

“Our financial challenge has been made even worse by this Conservative Government’s disastrous mini budget, which has fuelled high inflation, high interest rates and higher costs, and their £100 million real terms cuts to our budget since 2010.

“The best thing that can happen now is a general election to allow the public to elect a new, more economically competent government.”

Tory MPs’ call “beyond parody” – Tomlinson 

Local Labour candidates also blamed the government for the funding crisis. Responding to the MPs’ letter, Chipping Barnet candidate Dan Tomlinson said: “The idea that Tory MPs are now calling on their own government to restore funding to local areas is beyond parody and voters in Barnet will see right through it, after all our own council’s funding has been slashed since 2010.

“14 years of the Conservatives has seen the strain on our communities and local councils increase – from struggling high streets to a social care system at breaking point. Electing a Labour government is the only sustainable route to fixing these problems, and I hope Barnet can play its role in that in 2024.”

“14 years of shortchanging Barnet” – Sackman 

Labour’s candidate in Finchley and Golders Green, commenting before the above statement from Mike Freer, called on her opponent to speak out to support the council. She said: “The Conservatives’ refusal to support sufficient central government funding for better council services in Barnet shows Rishi Sunak has completely failed to turn round the damage caused by his own party when they crashed the economy, driving up interest rates and the cost of living for everyone. 

“Some Conservative MPs outside London have called for more financial support for county councils but we have heard nothing from Mike Freer MP about his government’s 14 years of shortchanging Barnet. As a former leader of Barnet Council he should be speaking out.”Barnet Post will continue to cover the funding challenges facing Barnet Council, within the wider context of local government funding, as the council sets its budget next month.

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