Free primary school meals ‘forever’ is headline policy in Camden’s newly announced ‘cost-of-living budget’

Camden’s finance chief Cllr Richard Olszewski. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Pupils in Camden’s primaries will get free school meals “forever” in a move announced as part of the council’s “cost of living budget”.

Leader Georgia Gould said at last night’s full council meeting: “People are coming to us in tears because they can’t feed their family.”

She said the growth of food banks should not be considered normal.

It follows London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s announcement of a £130m fund to feed 270,000 young Londoners during the next school year.

This year’s budget also sees council tax increase by the maximum 4.99 per cent allowed without triggering a referendum.

Rents for council homes are going up by seven per cent after the government ended a freeze on increases.

Cllr Richard Olszewski, cabinet member for finance, said the budget was in response to the cost-of-living crisis and sees the council extend its £2m hardship fund into this year.

It comes after the Town Hall made £197m savings by the end of 2022/23.

Cllr Olszewski said “sadly we have to increase council tax” by the maximum and pointed out that Camden gets one of the lowest amounts of government funding in London.

The Labour-controlled council is spending £29m on a 100 per cent council tax support scheme so 16,000 families do not have to pay anything.

The Liberal Democrat opposition said the council could go further and offer the free school dinners from April, instead of waiting until the autumn.

Leader Tom Simon said some of the council’s choices were the “wrong ones”.

His group proposed renting out three floors in the underused council offices in Pancras Square and using the £1.8m income to fund school dinners “for secondary school students from low income families and to provide free school meals for primary school pupils from Easter and to support families with the cost of school uniforms”.

Other suggestions included grants to address hygiene poverty and a senior planning officer to check how green proposed new developments are.

The Conservative group suggested extending the opening hours at Swiss Cottage library, including Sunday openings, so people have a warm hub and place to go for free.

It also wanted to rent out two floors of Pancras Square.

Leader Gio Spinella also said the council could share digital, HR, legal and procurement services with Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster councils. The two authorities already share some services to save money.

Cllr Olszweski said it was not practical to rent out space in Pancras Square as people are working from home less and its not yet known how much space is needed.

The council urged people facing problems in paying their bills to get in touch for help.

It has also produced a cost-of-living booklet with details of other support.

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