Cllr Matthew Evans is Leader of the Conservative Group on Newport Council.
Back in the middle of March, I sat in a room with other councillors, and with Council officers, undertaking a sifting process to appoint a Chief Executive at Newport City Council. That was to be the last face to face meeting I had, as the coronavirus pandemic escalated rapidly. Shortly afterwards I had a conversation with the Leader of the Council and I told her I was putting party politics aside and would assist in any way I could. I am tired of hearing petty point scoring from so-called ‘senior’ politicians and I think the public are too. Don’t get me wrong, if there are issues and concerns I will raise them but I believe it is time to pull together.
Before this crisis I had never even heard of Zoom but now it is part of everyday, both for work and social interaction. In addition to regular email correspondence we have a weekly Group catch up via Zoom and I relay any concerns back to the Leader of the Council via TEAM. A weekly email is issued to all Councillors by the Group leaders ensuring continuity and consistency in messaging to the residents of the City.
Communication works two ways: I was inundated with messages and requests from people of all ages wanting to volunteer and/or setting up their own local help groups, often via social media. They are all incredibly well intentioned and it is heartening to see the enthusiasm and community spirit alive and well. But, there are risks and potential liability issues in this approach. This is why we signpost them to three organisations across the city who are co-ordinating activities: The Red Cross, Age Cymru (Concern) and GAVO the Gwent Association of Voluntary Organisation. These groups have the knowledge and expertise to ensure duplication of effort is minimised and all areas of the City benefit.
The system is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination: having submitted my application to volunteer at the end of the March, almost four weeks later I am still waiting for my first assignment. Although this is perhaps understandable with so many wanting to help, it is a little disheartening when you believe you have something to offer and are able to make a (small) difference. It’s clearly far too early to be debating lessons learned, but the blanket mandating of DBS checks for all volunteer positions (regardless of contact with the public and levels of supervision) will surely need to be addressed in any future emergency planning.
It is well publicised that Newport is hit particularly badly by the coronavirus and there are no clear answers as to why this should be. I could speculate but that isn’t particularly helpful. Speculation driven by social media and some elements of the press has been divisive and dangerous: at a time when we should be pulling together, reckless words push our communities further apart.
Social media also gives voice to the ever growing multitude of scientific experts and economists, each demanding that we listen to how they would have done things differently. But if anyone can name a reputable economist who predicted a global recession back in December 2019, I would very much like to hear from them.
Councils are on the front line when it comes to leading the community response and we all have a duty to provide visible and responsible local leadership. Whether it is support for the homeless, elderly and vulnerable groups, or rate rebates and Trading Standard enquiries I don’t think the public comprehend the vast range of services we provide. But there again, why should they? As I keep being reminded ‘I pay my Council Tax’, so it’s up to the elected members, council officers and workers, to do whatever is necessary to deliver…seamlessly. Hopefully, when this is all over, there will be greater appreciation and recognition for essential groups including care workers and refuse collectors who have held our City together through the toughest, extraordinary times.
Because many issues in Wales are now devolved, there is always confusion when UK Government makes an announcement as to if it applies to us. The biggest bone of contention is that parks and cemeteries remain closed in Newport despite the advice in England that they should stay open. At the moment, I would say public opinion is split down the middle with strong arguments in both support and opposition. A major concern voiced by those opposing the reopening is antisocial behaviour and illegal gathering: sadly we seem to let a minority spoil it for everyone else.
Looking forward, it is difficult to predict the long-term impact of this crisis and we need to let the dust settle before having an honest appraisal of what went wrong, what worked well, and how we can improve should we experience anything like this again.
When we do get back to some sort of normality I will need to work out how I can attend seven AGM’s and get my hair cut…