Labour Councillor Shaida Hussain
Labour Councillor Shaida Hussain
It seems that our article about Tory councillors ripping into Victoria Prentis hit a nerve. Our illustrious MP was roused to respond in a statement to the Banbury Guardian in their latest article on the local government funding crisis. While it is certainly a pleasant surprise for Ms Prentis to pay (any) attention to local issues, parts of her response might benefit from a little context.

“Throughout this pandemic I have worked very closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and was responsible for securing a £63 million fund for county councils to provide financial help to those facing severe hardship, paying for food and other necessities.”

£63 million sounds like a lot of money. It is a lot of money. But to put it in context, it is also less than the funding gap faced by Oxfordshire council alone, due to the broken promises of this government, in which Ms Prentis is a minister. Council finances would not be in so dire a situation in the first place were it not for the crushing budget cuts imposed over the past decade of Conservative ideological austerity.  So, £63 million; well done? But it is equivalent to papering over a hole in the roof while her party has spent 10 years sawing through the foundations. Not really something to trumpet.

“I know the councils in Oxfordshire are all finding this difficult and I am working closely with my Ministerial colleagues to ensure the concerns of our councils are heard at the top levels of Government. I feel it is inaccurate to say that I have ‘ignored all warnings’ and have been defined by ‘inaction’. I shall be meeting again with council colleagues next week.”

If, when challenged on inaction, the best Ms Prentis can come up with is one letter, written months ago (and at the prompting of a Conservative Councillor at that), we would like to suggest that our characterisation of having ‘ignored all warnings’ and being ‘defined by inaction’ is actually fairly on the money. Ms Prentis may wish to review her PR strategy.

Considering Ms Prentis’ submission further, it is worth noting that the letter received no more than a boilerplate reply (see below), and months of our MP ‘working closely’ with her ministerial colleagues and meeting with councillors have yielded no apparent changes in the government’s position on the matter (apart from the drop-in-the-ocean £63m grant). Then again, there have been MPs so inactive they couldn’t even write that one letter; is the suggestion that we be grateful for what we get?

If Ms Prentis is still ‘working closely’ we venture to suggest she could try encouraging her colleague Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, to spend a bit more time looking at the local government situation and a bit less time viewing sales pitches on billionaire Conservative donors’ phones.

“The article from the Labour party fails to mention that when Cllr Hussain got in touch with me I shared a letter I had received from Ministers with her after writing to them about the impact of Coronavirus on Local Government. I also wrote again to MHCLG to flag up her particular concerns about the impact on high growth areas like our own.”

We will happily acknowledge we did not mention this letter from Simon Clarke MP, although why Ms Prentis thinks eliciting such a non-response represents any sort of achievement is difficult to discern. Upon careful reading the letter makes precisely zero commitments, instead conveying the stark warning, “I recognise that some will want to go beyond these immediate priorities and continue supporting their communities in other ways, and it is right that the cost of doing so is met locally”.

Indeed, to a cynical mind that might translate to, “We’re going to blame the councils when they have to cut services”. As Ms Prentis assured local Labour group leader Sean Woodcock she was confident councils would be properly supported (BBC Radio, 23rd April), we can take confidence that couldn’t possibly be the intended reading.

Councillor Hussain gave us a perfect summary of Ms Prentis’ apathetic response, “I believe the letter is wholly inadequate, the government seem to be completely lacking any sense of urgency. Their slow response will have a massive impact on all social levels across the country. Local authorities do not have time to waste. I am glad Councillor Corkin echoed my thoughts out loud, this is an issue far more important than party loyalty.”

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