Sandwell councillors clash over cost of living motion

Sandwell councillors clash over cost of living motion

Kerrie Carmichael, Chair of the Sandwell Council
Kerrie Carmichael, Chair of the Sandwell Council

A motion by Sandwell Council leader Kerrie Carmichael of Labour, called on the local authority to declare a “cost of living emergency” – just as neighboring Birmingham City Council announced in September.

Councilor Carmichael pointed to figures suggesting around 11,000 people were visiting the precinct’s warm rooms – a free space anyone can visit to keep from freezing at home – and that a WhatsApp group set up by the council “had surpassed what we expected.” .

The motion called on the council to explore ways to explore council funds to help those most vulnerable in the Black Country district “while recognizing the cuts made by governments over the last decade”.

The motion also called on the Council to convene a Cost of Living Summit to invite partners, businesses, organisations, unions and MPs to discuss further action needed.

Councilor Carmichael opened the debate, saying: “In April of this year we presented a motion to this council recognizing that times are going to be difficult for the people living in Sandwell and that further government help will be needed to so our residents can make ends meet.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had two more budgets within a few months since then, making this even more difficult for our residents who are now spending their money more than ever.

“We know from our case work that our residents are very proud people and do not want to ask for help through no fault of their own. They are in a situation from which they see no way out.”

Councilor David Fisher, the Conservative leader of the opposition, told the chambers he agreed “wholeheartedly” with Labor’s living expenses proposal, but added in his own amendment that Sandwell Council “needs to recognize the adverse effects that the House’s own budget and tax policies are having Rates” had on locals.

He said: “I don’t think so [the motion] goes far enough because the cost of living crisis affects everyone. It worries me to hear the stories of residents who are really struggling during this time.

“But this council, like the government, has a duty to its residents and we would be naïve not to recognize the financial impact of this council’s economic policies on our residents.”

Councilor Fisher listed government funds that have boosted the council’s budget to help local people – including the £3.4million budget support fund and £20million for the energy rebates scheme – and claimed the government support was ” more than appropriate for this advice”.

He added: “You may not like what has been said tonight as I have said that the Government has provided more than enough funding to this local authority. So how you spend it is your prerogative. You are the administration, so you can decide how to go about your business.”

Conservative councilor William Gill said the council needs to “look a little closer home” at why residents continue to struggle, pointing to a council tax rate of 4.99 per cent.

He said: “It would be unfair to say it’s all the fault of the central government. The only reason people are suffering is a pandemic that happened that no one could have seen. A war in Ukraine won’t help either.”

Labor Councilor Richard McVittie thanked Councilor Fisher for his “political mission of why you wouldn’t vote Conservative in the next election”.

He added: “It’s too little, too late and not enough to support our communities. And can I just say how disappointed I am at Sandwell Council that we are having to pull this off, but how proud and humbled that we as Council have taken on the opportunity to save our residents.

Vice-Chairman Bob Piper added an amendment to the Conservatives’ amended motion that suggested the “Conservative government of the last 12 years” should be responsible for its own budget and tax policies.

Conservative Amrita Dunn hit back at Labour, saying the change was to hold the council accountable for its financial mismanagement.

She said: “The Council’s role is to ensure that these funds are used and that the money is invested wisely. Those are the Council’s decisions.”

Labor Councilor John Giles said: “You can try kicking us as many times as you like but at the end of the day you and your MPs know the crisis was caused by Government in London, not here in Sandwell.”

Councilor Fisher’s amendment was rejected while Councilor Carmichael’s amendment was accepted by a Labor majority. The Conservatives abstained on the original motion.

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