COVID-19 has created challenges we could not have planned for. Nations have been brought to a standstill. Governments have had to make decisions that just months ago could never have been imagined.
Councils too have responded in an unprecedented manner. But we went into this pandemic with our own significant challenges – the prospect of an £8 billion funding gap by 2025 and pressures growing on increasingly fragile services that supported the most vulnerable, such as children’s services, adult social care, and homelessness support. Despite multi-year settlements, councils have never had certainty of funding.
Despite these unresolved issues, at a time of national crisis councils put their local leadership role first. They moved at pace, used innovative approaches and worked flexibly to support their communities and keep services running. Their communities trusted them, and they delivered. Throughout, councils learnt from and supported each other through sector-led improvement. Our key lessons are worth reflecting on:
Councils can: Quickly create new services to support national policy
Overnight, councils across the country set up completely new services to support the most vulnerable whilst they shielded at home. Within weeks, 132 council-led hubs were established across the country. Drawing on local expertise, councils led partnerships across the public, private, voluntary and community sector (VCS) handling requests for food parcels, financial support and wellbeing issues.
As the crisis began, councils quickly identified those in most need. Every council set up a range of communications channels, locally tailored in a way not possible at a national level. Befriending schemes and mental health support were offered to tackle loneliness and isolation, whilst many councils provided additional financial support to those they assessed as being in greatest need. All of this was done whilst ongoing data quality issues remained, and the role of supermarkets had to be negotiated.
Councils can: Deliver a cross-sector response
Councils have repeatedly demonstrated that they are the core central body that can quickly convene a range of partners to address significant national issues. From the start of this emergency, councils have provided leadership on the key issues. For example, councils in the West London Alliance teamed up with North West London Health to work collectively on mitigating the risk of infection in care homes. Craven District Council worked closely with funeral directors across Craven, Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire to ensure they could provide funeral services for a small number of close family members throughout the pandemic. Cornwall Council worked with partners to repurpose homes that had been built but not yet sold to act as emergency accommodation for the homeless. Across the country, councils used their influence to convene the local partnerships that mattered.
Councils can: Lead local economic recovery
Councils have been central to the employment and economic support that has been provided to residents and businesses. They employ significant numbers of local people in their areas and, along with support for SMEs, provide the economic backbone of local places. They were pivotal in distributing the £12.3 billion Government made available to support business through Small Business Grants, and wider support for retail, hospitality and leisure. Councils acted with urgency to provide the relief at short notice. They identified local businesses, assessed eligibility and distributed funds to over 800,000 organisations. In the first eight weeks of social distancing measures, councils had distributed £9.9 billion of funding.
Councils are now turning to longer term recovery issues, reviewing the opportunities offered by the green economy and digital innovation, and supporting local businesses. In Barnsley, the council’s business support service, Enterprising Barnsley, has continued to build on its web-based services for local businesses with a suite of offers to support recovery and beyond. This includes online video content and webinars. Slough Borough Council has developed a recovery and renewal plan covering the next five-year period while Malvern Hills District Council is developing a town prospectus with businesses, town councils and others to deliver a new sustainable, green and innovative future. Councils can lead the social, economic and environmental recovery at a local level because they understand the needs and nuances of local economies. The speed at which councils got their response up and running shows that local can be more nimble than national and councils can deliver at pace.
Councils can: Care for people
Social care, alongside the NHS, has formed a vital part of the frontline response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and councils have stepped up as direct providers and commissioners of social care services. Councils have been at the forefront of work to support infection control both in care homes and in domiciliary settings, and have worked to facilitate training and guidance, retain staff and enhance the advice they were able to offer.
Councils support far more people outside care home settings, making the range of needs they must address much more complex. Of the funding given to local government to support the COVID-19 effort, 40 per cent of it has been allocated directly to adult social care.
And councils took the lead in tackling the issue of PPE shortages for social care staff, recognising its importance in protecting not just staff but the most vulnerable in our society. In Surrey, councillors coordinated activity with schools and colleges to make visors and in Richmondshire, its councillors set up a ‘scrub hub’ to produce supplies.
Councils can: Adapt to a new world
Across the country, councils reshaped and redesigned core services in response to COVID-19. Nationally 91 per cent of household waste collections continued as usual although services were hit by staff illnesses, social distancing challenges and increased amounts of waste to collect.
Councils worked with education leaders to ensure schools remained open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children. They tailored their children’s social care services so that vulnerable children were protected and supported, introducing new initiatives such as ‘home from home’ offers to support children when their relatives were unwell and getting social workers to engage with children online.
Parks were among the first places that people turned to support their mental and physical wellbeing during the restrictions. Councils worked hard to ensure they remained open. Library service membership increased by an estimated 120,000 people during the first few weeks of lockdown; while registrations for digital library access increased by 600 per cent. There has been a boom in the development of online and streamed library services and museum hubs, and some councils such as Brighton and Hove and Southampton, have developed virtual tourism experiences so that ‘visitors’ can enjoy what places have to offer without having to leave their own homes.
Councils can: Provide democratic accountability
Councils have overcome the practical issues relating to democratic decision making. With social distancing requirements, councils rapidly introduced online meetings to ensure democratic accountability remained central to decision-making and switched to the use of online platforms. The transition from ‘real’ to virtual meetings has been almost seamless, allowing councils to concentrate on supporting their communities. They have maintained transparency and allowed local democracy to flourish, while developing technological solutions at scale and in ways not seen before. During this period more than 200 councils used the LGA’s Remote Councils meetings hub for practical information and guidance on how to run virtual meetings.
Councils can: Continue to lead local responses
The response of local government to the challenges and consequences of COVID-19 has cut across all council services and responsibilities. The breadth, pace and interconnectivity of the response could only have been achieved by local government. As the country emerges from the restrictions, it is essential that local responses continue to inform recovery and renewal. This will be best supported by a sector-led approach and will require councils to continue to lead partnerships at a local level, renewing the relationship between citizens and public services and building on the community capacity that has been developed.