The pandemic has a habit of bringing hidden social crises into the open. Now it reveals the precarious position of local government, the provider of vital services from care homes to public health and bin collection, which has helped keep the show on the road in the UK’s biggest national emergency since the second world war.
The National Audit Office (NAO) account of the near implosion of England’s local councils during Covid is sobering: only by the government’s swift, if grudging, injection of billions of pounds of emergency cash into council coffers over recent months did ministers avert what the auditors call “system-wide financial failure”.
The watchdog rightly praises ministers for this: the consequences of scores of local authorities having to declare bankruptcy in the middle of lockdown are frightening. But it makes two other points: first, that 10 years of austerity made municipal finances structurally fragile; and second, that councils’ budget crisis isn’t over: