EXCLUSIVE: How are districts surviving the pandemic?

By Dan Peters | 10 November 2020

Local government has a strange relationship with league tables.

Scarred by years of being ranked, rated and graded by the likes of the Audit Commission, any mention of them usually prompts cries of dread.

Yet there remains a fascination with benchmarking and some of those anti-league table principles disappear when councils find themselves at the right end.

The latest contribution comes from Grant Thornton, which has privately drawn up COVID-19 vulnerability and recovery indices for the Society of District Council Treasurers. Grant Thornton’s index – leaked to The MJ – bluntly ranks district councils on a suite of measures, including the vulnerability of their finances, local economies and ability to recover.

Adur DC in West Sussex is currently rooted at the bottom of the recovery index, which has been drawn up to understand how well placed areas are to respond and recover from COVID-19. The recovery index uses data including the level of a council’s reserves as a percentage of their total gross expenditure, the percentage of businesses and employment in at risk sectors and the impact of COVID-19 on growth.

Richard Botham, strategic director of services at Winchester City Council, which, according to the index, has a better chance of recovery than many others, explained: ‘Despite current economic pressures, Winchester has a high number of local independent traders that were able to adapt and respond quickly to provide online trading and delivery services to their local communities. The finance, professional technical, and information and communications technology sector (32%) has also been able to adapt and move to work from home rather than report any major redundancies. Footfall in August was relatively good, boosted by the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and vacancy rates remain low.’

At the other end of Grant Thornton’s table, Oxford City Council comes third from bottom – quite the turnaround from last year when it was fourth in Grant Thornton’s sustainable growth index. Deputy leader, Cllr Ed Turner, said: ‘The Oxford economy was pretty strong before. Oxford has been an economic success story in recent decades.

‘Tourism is a major part of it but international and domestic tourism have both been affected. However, I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom. Oxford will continue to be a place that’s interesting for people to visit.’

Jonathan Werran, chief executive of think-tank Localis, which is currently working on a strategic case for city-led growth, innovation and renewal for the council, stressed the importance of governance and place leadership in recovery, which are harder to measure.

‘It’s always the difference,’ he said.

‘Oxford is a unique global city that should be poised to recover well from COVID. What the index doesn’t maybe take into account is place leadership and the ability to drive places, which is an intangible and unseen quality. It’s the x factor.’

President of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport, Nigel Riglar, agreed that the ‘secret formula’ was place leadership. He explained: ‘I think it’s that granularity of understanding. Local economies are so different across the country that no government can know what individual localities are going to need. I think overall there’s been a real step change in the understanding of local economies. I think coronavirus has made local authorities think fundamentally about their local economies.

‘Coronavirus has affected different place in different ways. It’s not a structural economic downturn but a policy-driven recession and therefore the one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. The recovery therefore needs to be driven at a local level.’

Looking to the future, Mr Werran cautioned against repeating the mistakes from the mid-1980s onwards, when growth was sought at any cost. He called for a human-centred recovery focusing on employment and skills opportunities and a German-style system of retaining growth revenue.

In terms of the vulnerability of local economies, Grant Thornton ranks East Lindsey, Pendle and High Peak as most exposed.

East Lindsey – at 52.4 – has the third-highest median age in the UK while two of its towns – Skegness and Mablethorpe – were seaside tourism hotspots. Assistant director for the council’s towns fund bids, Lydia Rusling, said: ‘I often say we’re top of the league table for the wrong reasons in Mablethorpe but how do we turn that on its head?’

East Lindsey’s deputy chief executive, Michelle Sacks, added it was difficult to find a positive in light of the ‘sheer scale’ of the impact, with estimates that about one in five high street shops will be lost after the pandemic.

Ms Sacks continued: ‘In any recession situation there are winners and losers but actually this time it’s the breadth of the businesses that are affected. We have to work really carefully on how we present support and opportunities.

‘I think we have a lot to be optimistic and positive about. We’re not just sitting back and waiting for things to happen.’

On the towns fund bids, Ms Sacks added: ‘We’ve all grasped this as a real opportunity to shift that balance and take control of our destiny. Our communities can see they’re not being forgotten about.’

To the south, Canterbury, which Grant Thornton says has the fifth-highest economic vulnerability, is notable for the 35,000 students who flock to its three universities in term time – doubling its population – its coastline and focus on tourism, which represents 15% of the local economy.

Head of property and regeneration at Canterbury City Council, Caroline Hicks, said the district ‘normally fares really well in terms of recession’ but pointed out how quickly businesses and the council had adapted.

She said: ‘While COVID has obviously been a massive hit, what those who are finding a way through and surviving are really doing is accelerating their business plans to leapfrog over a couple of years to where they would have been in three or four years’ time. The fact that everything went to the wall earlier in the year has enabled people to think a bit more clearly.

‘As a council we have resilience and contingency plans for blips but nobody would have expected this. It’s entirely unknown what’s round the corner tomorrow.’

Ms Hicks continued: ‘To be honest, I don’t think the next few months will be about recovery. I think we’re going to get another wave. I think we’re still in the phase of survival.

‘Things are looking a lot more positive now than I would have said they would. I take comfort from the breadth of survival.

‘There’s an argument that we’ve had a bit of natural wastage. It’s not the end in terms of the high street but we can’t just put our feet up.’

Senior analyst at the Centre for Cities think-tank, Kathrin Enenkel, said it was still too early to make too many judgements but suggested places where recovery would be easiest would have knowledge-intensive industries, which would be able to maintain employment through the pandemic.

She name checked Cambridge, Aldershot and Reading as being less vulnerable, but predicted the wider recovery would not be fast.

Ms Enenkel added: ‘The places that have had the highest increases of unemployment were all dependent on one industry. The recovery will be very slow in these places. The biggest problem is that certain industries will never recover. Cities must respond with retraining and job creation.’

The odds may be stacked against some areas then, but none are throwing in the towel.

Recovery index (A position nearer the top of the table indicates greater recoverability)

1-10

1. Surrey Heath

2. South Norfolk

3. Wychavon

4. Blaby

5. Broadland

6. Harlow

7. Warwick

8. South Cambridgeshire

9. Selby

10. Winchester

179-188

179. Chesterfield

180. Canterbury

181. Eastbourne

182. Burnley

183. Wellingborough

184. Gosport

185. Pendle

186. Oxford

187. Newcastle-under-Lyme

188. Adur

Economic vulnerability index (A position nearer the top of the table indicates greater economic vulnerability)

1-10

1. East Lindsey

2. Pendle

3. High Peak

4. Thanet

5. Canterbury

6. North Norfolk

7. Havant

8. Hyndburn

9. Broxbourne

10. South Lakeland

179-188

179. Boston

180. Blaby

181. Torridge

182. South Norfolk

183. Barrow-in-Furness

184. Watford

185. Elmbridge

186. Bromsgrove

187. Surrey Heath

188. Reigate and Banstead

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