District councils continue to respond effectively to the pandemic.
Districts are among the ‘go-to’ billing authorities. On behalf of Government they have distributed billions of pounds of grants to small and medium-size businesses and hundreds of millions of pounds of council tax relief to poorer working age households. They are also, among the strategic housing authorities, making sure that over 90% of homeless people and rough sleepers were moved into temporary accommodation in a short period. They have kept parks open, to provide a valued venue for exercising. They’ve ensured that the vast majority of waste collection services kept going in shire county areas. Local residents and businesses have applauded these efforts: perhaps there is now a better appreciation of important district services.
Our job has not been made as easy as it might have been. Government guidance comes out with little or no notice, often with little prior discussion with local government. We are left to play ‘catch- up’. The raft of documents after the Prime Minister’s announcement on easing the lockdown arrangements arrived less than 48 hours before regulations changed and a few on the very day of the change. This affects all organisations, leaving insufficient time to consider changes.
Most district councils have not changed the way that ‘office work’ is done following the move from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’: a general return to the office would risk the health of staff and their households unnecessarily. Looking ahead, how many councils will revert to ‘how things used to be’? Home working has not caused the world to come to an end.
Districts will play their full role as the strategic housing and planning authorities, drawing on their economic development teams, to assist with the recovery of local economies. However, the Government has moved away from undertaking to meet the financial impact for councils, and now seems to promise only to meet extra costs of work it has requested. The finances of districts and other councils, already under strain before the pandemic, may deteriorate further. Questions about which services can be sustained, whether office footprints should be maintained and what other changes may be required will come to the fore as part of the recovery process.
Ian Miller is chief executive of Wyre Forest DC