Cllr David Williams is the Chairman of the County Councils Network and the Leader of Hertfordshire County Council
“Every part of our government, from Whitehall to your local town hall is working together in this national effort. Nowhere is that clearer than on the front lines in our communities…. local councils, at their best, can help to make life, even in times like this, more liveable and more humane.”
Those are not the words of a council leader, but of Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary.
County authorities have done some of the heaviest lifting during the pandemic: imparting the government’s guidance to local people, delivering over one million food parcels to the most vulnerable, securing PPE, protecting the NHS by buying care in the community, working with schools and nurseries to keep them open, providing accommodation for the homeless, and sadly, building mortuaries at lightning speed.
I’ve enjoyed a strong relationship with Robert and his ministerial colleagues during the pandemic, and I believe local government will come out of this difficult phase with an enhanced reputation.
On reflection, councils accomplished a huge amount in a short space of time – days rather than weeks. This included re-shaping services, re-deploying staff, and implementing working from home strategies for thousands-strong workforces.
Importantly, this was done whilst keeping the show on the road for vital day-to-day services: grass cutting, waste disposal, and road repairs, to name a few. For those services where we could not continue delivery during the pandemic, colleagues imaginatively re-purposed them – such as putting library services online, and even webcasted funerals.
In Hertfordshire, many of our public health services, such as smoking cessation and sexual health went online – freeing up some of our workforce to be re-deployed in health settings on the Coronavirus frontline.
Since the very start of the pandemic, a clear focus for the government has been to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed by the virus.
Councils played no small part in this: being tasked with securing care in the community to ensure there was capacity in acute settings. We saw county authorities at their imaginative best here: bringing back old care homes into use, training staff and councillors to work within adult social care services, and re-purposing buildings in a stadium into a brand-new 240-bed care facility.
Protecting care homes from the financial storm of Coronavirus has always been of utmost importance to us: it is in no-one’s interest for any provider to become insolvent.
Contrary to what has been alleged in the national media, the vast majority of county authorities have agreed to pay their providers significantly more in fees, concluding complex negotiations in a short space of time. Many of us saw provider finances and uncompetitive carer pay as a problem coming down the track and began setting aside millions as we budgeted for the current financial year.
An emerging issue for the government in the pandemic has been the harrowing scenes in care homes. A great deal of focus has been on the sheer numbers, but every individual death is an absolute tragedy.
I know my county colleagues have been straining every sinew to ensure that personal protective equipment makes its way into care settings, including some counties using the trade links they had built up with other countries.
As this shows, in every step of the pandemic, we’ve been ready and willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with the government: helping to address local issues and in ensuring the most vulnerable are protected.
We have proved to be flexible to changes in guidance; such as getting recycling centres and country parks re-opened and safe.
In almost every area of the public realm – from infection control in care homes, to planning cycle lanes, to getting lifeline grant funding to local enterprises – councils have stepped up where necessarily and used taxpayers’ money wisely.
The County Councils Network’s new publication showcases some of the best work from counties across the country.
But we cannot rest on our laurels now as the country heads into recovery. A place-based, local focus will be necessary to give the country the economic growth it needs after the pandemic. CCN’s blueprint for localised growth, released before the lockdown, shows why counties should be at the forefront of this.
As county areas are so diverse with differing areas having particular needs, strengths, and weaknesses, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Some areas will be vulnerable to current and future declines in hospitality, others from a slowdown in the global economy, and others from a dip in retail.
Here, county authorities can play a hugely important leadership and visionary role. Crucially, we need to channel the positive energy created in our communities and bring people with us on the road to recovery.
However, we cannot completely fulfil ambitious plans whilst funding uncertainty remains. Further pressures, such as children’s social services, and providing safe home to school transport are coming down the track. We still await confirmation as to whether lost income from Council Tax and Business Rates – potentially running into billions – will be met.
If we have begun to enhance our reputation and the respect in which we are held, then it must be supported with adequate levels of funding from the government.
The Communities Secretary has been very receptive to our advocacy during the outbreak – and rest assured we will not be making blank cheque arguments – focusing instead on practical solutions based on clear evidence.
But for now we will continue to do what we do best: rolling up our sleeves, getting on with the day job, and ensuring that our residents receive the best possible services, and the most vulnerable stay protected.