At the beginning of February, it’s fair to say that for most of the nation coronavirus was a dot on the horizon. Fast forward seven weeks from then and each element of our lives had changed irrevocably, and at breakneck speed.
County authorities were no exception to this, having to dramatically re-shape their services almost overnight and implementing new ways of operating: making workplaces safe for staff and residents, redeployment of staff to COVID-19 activity and a huge increase in home-working.
But their efforts did not stop there. We have seen counties do some of the heaviest lifting during the pandemic: leading Local Resilience Forums, supporting and funding care homes, delivering food parcels and medicines to the vulnerable, recruiting thousands of volunteers, supporting community groups, getting homeless people into accommodation and sadly, providing additional mortuaries.
All of this has been done whilst maintaining the vital day-to-day services people rely on. As the country slowly changed to a new way of life, local government kept the show on the road, adapting to deliver essential local services: from grass cutting, to helping nurseries continue operating, to road repairs, to bin collections – all done following social distancing guidelines of course. In other instances, a great deal of imagination has gone into preserving other offers: such as libraries going digital, and even webcast funerals at the height of the pandemic.
Councils are some of the most trusted public sector bodies, and have had a hugely important role in communications; both information on how to access services and government advice to local people to follow unprecedented restrictions.
CCN member councils had another immediate role to play: co-ordinating the spectacular volunteer effort into something whereby people’s willingness to give up their time could make a difference. To that end, every county area saw the creation of a community hub – recruiting and signposting individuals to volunteer and then matching them to relevant opportunities.
Council assets were repurposed as large-scale distribution centres, so when the government asked councils to help deliver food supplies and medicines to the most vulnerable, they had an efficient system ready to roll.
Staffordshire County Council delivered its 2,000th parcel of the pandemic in mid-May – a literal lifeline service for those recipients. Meanwhile, Cumbria County Council’s emergency helpline for those without a support network took its 5,000th call by the end of the month.
It is in care that councils have been asked to contribute the most. Contrary to what has been alleged in the national media, the vast majority of our member councils have got payments out the door and agreed to pay their providers significantly more in fees.
Essex County Council saw this problem coming down the track and set aside £12m from its reserves in the middle of March – before the pandemic. In addition, councils have provided training to providers and have helped source personal protective equipment for the care sector, including Cambridgeshire County Council using its trade links with China to get 12,000 pieces.
Councils also bulk bought care beds in the community to help take the pressure off the NHS, including Buckinghamshire Council which re-purposed a stadium into a care facility. Last month’s request from the government for councils to produce care home support plans is not without its financial challenges, but it is a vote of confidence in councils, and for keeping social care a local service.
As counties begin to move out of the most stringent lockdown measures, our member councils will be starting to draw up robust plans for economic recovery place-focused at their heart.
Our member councils will be setting out bold visions for their areas: how their communities will want to work and function, not just employment but encompassing leisure and life, particularly with the need to cut down on carbon footprints.
In practice, however, the groundwork to this has already begun: with councils swiftly distributing lifeline grant money to small businesses and offering their own resource for small enterprise and charities. Cornwall Council was the first local authority to get £200m out the door – no small feat when the council was adapting a completely new way of working.
As we move out of the most stringent rules of lockdown, it gives us time to reflect on the role of councils thus far in the pandemic.
We know local authorities are sometimes unfairly chastised by some parts of the media and even by the public, but it is fair to say that they’ve played a hugely important role in the national effort, often making sense of a disjointed central response.
I firmly believe local government will come out of this with a reputation enhanced and a greater respect from central government – and, of course, this is not exclusive to counties. Now is the time to see councils as vitally important to England’s health and prosperity as other public services - fund them fairly and give them the powers to transform their societies for a better, more localist future.
Simon Edwards, Director, County Councils Network
Download CCN’s new publication Coronavirus: How counties are stepping up to help the nation here.