Regular involvement in our local communities meant we could respond quickly to pull local partners together before lock-down was announced. Our Parish Church offered to provide a base for a ‘Community Response Hub’, the Church Secretary took on the role of co-ordinator and other volunteers from the congregation stepped up to run social media.
This gave us a flying start in organising a grass-root team offer to local people into which representatives from the Police, a Council Officer and other representatives from local groups met and worked together. We met every day for the first 16 days to make sure out plan would work, that our 170+ volunteers were trained and ready to respond to a variety of expected needs.
The community connections and knowledge of Councillors as Community Champions made it easier for the big team to pull together information and quickly make links between people, organisations, need and resources. Councillors quickly responded to the “Where can I get? who knows the person who can?” sort of questions that came up in our morning meetings.
Councillors were also the people to challenge the establishment on why things had to happen a certain way, ensure resources were directed to support volunteers and their invaluable skills in tackling casework helped the hub make sense of requests and situations that arose. Councillors also play a part in hub meetings reporting in from their wards on the needs of people and the resilience of other organisations. They also report (and sort) the needs of our wards such as cleanliness and maintenance of the street scene.
Councillors work with volunteers to visit people, do shopping, pick up prescriptions, make welfare calls etc which are all operated through What’s App groups. The Community Hub also opened up a foodbank which we collect for. We’ve jointly launched a just giving page to support the work of the hub encouraging those who have saved money i.e. less travel, no gym subs etc. to “pay forward” the cash they have saved to help others.
Councillors also take responsibility to deal with or visit the “difficult to understand” calls for help. This has sometimes required us to visit, at a suitable distance, to make an assessment of what needs to be done. Some of this work has included becoming involved in making safeguarding referrals, emergency food parcels out of hours and topping up gas and electric meters.
As local Councillors we have made reassurance videos with the local vicar and appeared several times on radio phone-ins repeating the public health messages from the Council and government. We also offer the face of local reassurance at a time when people are fearful. We’ve used our Councillor postage allowances to send out letters to let people know what we are doing and how to get help if they need it or how they can volunteer to help others.
As Lib Dems we have access to resources too. We used the Lib Dem round lists to co-ordinate the delivery of over 40,000 leaflets, the Council gave each ward £1000.00 to help and we used some of this money to fund leaflets from the Community Response Hub. We also gave out our phone-bank mobiles, topped up by the Lib Dems, so that volunteers without a phone can have one for safety reasons when they are shopping for others.
We have three Councillors who are isolated and phoning others. Not only has this led to us making safeguarding referrals it is also making a difference to how people feel. Standing next to someone in the supermarket queue a lady told me she been called by one of our Councillors. She said “It was just what I needed – I was just going back to bed because I couldn’t be bothered to do anything. I chatted to Alun then got up, put my make-up on and now I’m here. I’m going home to make myself something to eat – thank you.” Many people stop me to say thank you for the work of the Councillors – they say they don’t need anything but it’s good to know we are there and offering support it they need it.
As Councillors we have also rung all the schools and care establishments offering support and have this week added 14 families to the work of the foodbank. As a result of these calls we have challenged the authority about the care of vulnerable children. Referrals to children services are massively down, health checks for already referred children have stopped all of which points to a massive build-up of children in need being isolated at home potentially in difficult circumstances. We have pressured the Council to do more to establish with schools precisely what “seen” in terms of a vulnerable child looks like which is getting results.
Councillors are also involved in additional casework which is happening as a result of lock-down. For example being involved in helping an isolating couple in Bradford participate electronically in the funeral for a relative in another part of the country and helping a care home organise a 100th birthday party for a resident.
We have also recruited additional volunteer litter-pickers to help keep our open spaces clean whilst they are out having their hour of exercise and next Wednesday we’re supporting our bin crews to use local centres to have a break as all of the places they normally have their breakfast and use the facilities are closed.
As Liberal Democrat Councillors and activists we meet electronically each week and last night explored our new google-drive for the storage of our campaigning materials as well as setting up a real challenge to the Labour groups proposals for getting Council decisions taken.
We all wear a Lib Dem lanyard on our volunteers badges and collect people and campaigns to help us going forward. This week we’ve been experimenting by offering surgeries into facebook groups and responding via messenger. Most folks don’t actually want anything but really happy that we are doing it. It’s certainly a challenging time to be a Liberal Democrat Councillor but one in which it is possible to be part of a Community Response, maintain our work as Community Champions and activists and be safe.