Cllr Shona Haslam is the Leader of the Scottish Borders Council
Local Government is on the front line of looking after the most vulnerable in our society during this crisis. The biggest challenge to local councils is the speed of change and the announcements that flooded out of Government during the first couple of weeks of the crisis.
Thankfully the speed of announcements have now calmed down and we are able to make sure that we are reaching all of the most vulnerable of our community and providing help and support to our local businesses.
The levels of financial support from UK Government has been astounding. The phrase “whatever it takes” echoes around the millions of pounds that is cascading to local government and business. Money for business, for self employed, for furloughed workers, for food boxes, for PPE, for education hubs, for free school meals. It is a deluge of help and support that is gratefully received and much needed. But it was a huge amount of support to put in place incredibly quickly.
It is well known that local government is not normally renowned for its nimble feet and quick responses. Anyone who has ever applied for planning permission, or tried to find the right person to talk to about preserving a tree, knows that it can be a bit of a bureaucratic maze of departments and officers. However in a crisis we do tend to come through. Whether that is winter weather or floods: when crisis hits, our teams swing into action with a mind-blowing urgency and efficiency.
A political leader of a council does not have much to do with the day to day organisational running of a local authority. Much of that is done by the Chief Executive and their officers. As a council leader, your role is much more to provide the strategic direction and political vision for the council – as well as identification of priorities. It is your job to work with officers to deliver that vision rather than get involved in the “how” it is delivered.
So, when this crisis developed and it became clear that the normal functioning of council had to be suspended you come to rely on your officers and your relationship with the Chief Executive in a way that I have not experienced before.
As with many councils around the country we moved quickly to suspend standing orders and delegate decision-making powers to the Chief Executive. This simply means that for the duration of the council, the Chief Executive is able to quickly take decisions without asking a Full Council meeting for agreement. Now, normally this would never be accepted but in these strange times we have little choice.
I have had many questions “but what if….” If this happens, or that happens, how can the Chief Executive make a decision on their own? The truth is the council and all its staff and operations are doing nothing but Covid-related work at the moment. It is all consuming.
When schools shut we had four days to put in place a scheme for key workers to access child care, for reasonable hours, seven days a week. That first Monday morning of lock down we had no idea how many children we would have, how many teachers we would have, and how we were going to transport them safely to and from school. We are a rural area and we transport thousands of kids every day.
Within a week we had established hubs and a booking system for our young people so that they could safely access child care seven days a week from 7.30am to 6pm. This service is continuing right through the Easter holidays. We are also continuing to provide free school meals to all kids entitled to them through our educational hubs.
Then came the shielding announcement. Anyone with a serious condition was to isolate for 12 weeks. This has been really challenging for local government. We are putting in place major food deliveries for around 2,600 in my area. The Scottish Government are providing food boxes but these will not be appropriate for everyone and we are contacting them all and finding out who would prefer to have meals delivered rather than a food box.
One thing that has been vital to all of this is our volunteers, without them none of this would have worked. Throughout our local authority, we have a resilient community network. Groups of volunteers who can swing into action whenever there is a situation that requires on the ground support. They are led by trained volunteers and fall under the umbrella of local government. They have been outstanding. Organising local groups, organising phone lines, shopping, prescription delivery, meal deliveries. Truly without them, none of this would have worked and we would be in a far worse situation.
This is an incredible amount to have been achieved in the last two weeks of lockdown. I have never been more proud to be involved in local government and I have been amazed at the passion, commitment, and drive of officers to get things done. Since last November, our emergency planning team has dealt with a major fire in a local High School, the aftermath of continuing the education of 1,600 pupils, major flooding in several Borders towns that left 70 families homeless and requiring accommodation and support, and now Covid.
There is a long way still to go, but Local Government is a front line service with a staff that will continue to deliver and protect the most vulnerable in our communities.