Questions raised of use of unspent coronavirus funds

Questions have been raised after Sandwell council approved the use of unspent coronavirus recovery funds to boost projects, amid claims of a ‘lack of scrutiny’.

Sandwell Council House
Sandwell Council House

A report by cabinet was presented to Sandwell council this week to use parts of the coronavirus recovery fund to plug gaps in adult social care and children’s services.

A total of £8 million of coronavirus recovery funds will be used by the Labour-led local authority to accomplish this. Details of those include £985,882 to be spent this financial year on children’s services budget proposals.

The council also hopes to remedy a backlog of adult social care cases, caused by delays to services during the pandemic, at a total of £905,000 for the remainder of the financial year.

The council has committed up to £1 million as a coronavirus community fund for voluntary organisations to bid on. The council agreed to secure £2 million of the unspent recovery funds as a resilience fund in the event of further coronavirus restrictions.

But it is understood that some of the projects listed for coronavirus recovery funds include £30,000 for a ‘Rainbow Festival’ during LGBT+ month, including staff costs, over two years.

The council hopes to spend £40,000 of the recovery fund on marketing materials for three festivals, including a winter festival and a literature festival to be held this year.

The council also hopes to use £240,000 of coronavirus recovery funds for “professional fees, legal and procurement advice” to progress the West Bromwich and Grove Lane masterplans, despite receiving £25 million from the Towns Funds for the West Bromwich plans.

Around an estimated £400 million will be used to develop several brownfield sites located around Grove Lane into 5,160 new homes, including the new Midlands Metropolitan Hospital.

The justification for the expenditure, according to Sandwell council, is to avoid paying back the government what coronavirus recovery funds the council still holds.

The cabinet report noted Sandwell council received £9 million from the government in the form of a coronavirus outbreak management fund. It also received three portions of coronavirus emergency funds totalling £25.7 million.

The council states it had anticipated £22 million of the funds to remain for this financial year, with £5.1 million already committed to being spent, leaving an ‘uncommitted’ balance of £16.9 million.

The report noted: “Whilst the funding isn’t ring-fenced, the council does have to report on how it is spent and the Covid pressures that the funding is used for. Given the improved level of Covid infection and impact nationally, it is recommended that the remaining funding is used towards a Covid recovery strategy.

“To focus on services where there is either a backlog of work due to the impact of the pandemic, or where residents/businesses need extra support to recover from the longer-term impact of Covid. It is also suggested that a proportion is set aside as a contingency for any further restrictions should a new variant emerge.”

Speaking at the cabinet meeting, councillor Bob Piper, who represents the Abbey Ward, said the funds will be used to increase “public health activity”.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, the central government provided funds to all local authorities in order to assist with spending pressures that may occur as a consequence of the pandemic, but also for loss of income and the need to have increased public health activity.

“We tried to use the principles of Fairer Sandwell in order to recognise that the pandemic has worsened inequalities for people across the borough. So many of the proposals given at section three, cover a range of service areas, including children’s services, adult social care, business support, and digital inclusion.

“The leadership team will also be continuing to explore the unfunded corporate priorities that may be appropriate to be funded out of the Covid-19 funding.”

Councillor Jay Anandou, who sits on the audit committee, said: “An unspent Covid fund of £16.9 million was approved by the cabinet on the 22nd June to use on various different projects without going through the member scrutiny via committees and scrutiny boards. A fund of this significance and subsequent allocation lacks scrutiny?

“Do all these allocations come under Covid recovery projects? Why [were] the members and relevant scrutiny process wasnt [sic] followed here?”

A spokesperson for Sandwell council said: “The Covid pandemic has worsened inequalities across the borough and the purpose of the Covid recovery fund is to support the services, businesses and residents that have been most impacted over the two years.

“The outcomes of projects are varied: from dealing with service backlogs caused by Covid to generating footfall in our towns and parks to support local businesses and improve physical activity.”

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