It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only in April last year that the four councils serving Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) were replaced by a single unitary authority serving nearly 400,000 residents. I knew the challenge was significant, but I had no idea what lay around the corner.
Following a tremendous effort by our team, managed by our new chief executive Graham Farrant, we achieved a smooth transfer of all the legal, constitutional and financial requirements while continuing to provide services to residents as normal. By 2020, as well as having declared a climate emergency and pledging carbon neutrality by 2030, the services across the three towns were beginning to be harmonised and we were well on the way to meeting our promise of developing a modern, accessible and accountable council with effective community leadership.
Lockdown changed everything; but leadership and a focus on community were to be central as we faced up to the logistical, financial and human challenges of the pandemic, including reduced staffing, home-working and the need to safeguard thousands of vulnerable individuals.
More challenges were to come with the relaxation of lockdown. On 10 May, when the Prime Minister said, ‘You can drive to other destinations…’, I was willing him to say, ‘…within five miles of your home’, but he didn’t, and as an easy-to-reach tourist destination with 15 miles of coastline, this would have big implications for us.
Unlimited exercise and travel were now permitted and we made the decision to open seafront facilities including car parks. This was controversial as many residents thought it encouraged visitors and other councils had taken a different approach, but we wanted to ensure that residents could make full use of local attractions, particularly as many had no outside spaces of their own. Without car parks, we suspected visitors would simply abandon their vehicles, a prediction later confirmed when the filling of car parks led to dramatic increases in illegal parking.
We immediately began preparations: reopening as many toilets as staff levels and safety regimes allowed, adding social-distancing signage and working closely with the police and other partners in the Local Resilience Forum to appeal to both residents and visitors to ‘Think Twice’ before visiting our beaches.
Despite our efforts, when the weather improved the day-trippers arrived in droves and our resources were undeniably overstretched, with visitor levels similar to those in mid-summer, when we would have four times as many seafront staff. Recruitment of our seasonal seafront staff had been paused due to lockdown, and we had hundreds of our staff self-isolating, with over 500 of our contract staff furloughed.
Cabinet colleagues and I went down to the beach to support our seafront team and I witnessed numerous incidents of irresponsible behaviour, non-permitted barbecues and abuse against staff. On just one weekend, despite bins not being at capacity, 40 tonnes of litter was left on our beaches; our parking restrictions were clear, yet there was a 23% increase in Penalty Charge Notices; toilets were open, yet people relieved themselves behind beach-huts.
Local residents were understandably angry. Why not close the beaches? Why can’t you fine everyone for littering? The weight of social media and press interest was formidable and it was a challenge for our communications team to explain what we could and couldn’t do in the face of both the law and government Covid-19 guidance that changed quickly and with little lead in, and wasn’t always clear in its delivery.
We needed to act. We had recruited almost 2,500 volunteers as part of our #TogetherWeCan community response and we made use of this spirit by forming supervised litter-picking groups. We extended the patrols of our Community Safety Accreditation Scheme officers, who have the power to impose fines, and hired additional security staff to combat overnight camping and help people feel safe. We again worked with the Local Resilience Forum and issued a joint statement urging people to ‘Respect Our Communities’.
I wrote a formal letter to our local MPs asking them to lobby ministers for a travel restriction similar to that in place for Wales but based upon postcodes. The lack of response to my letter was disappointing, to say the least.
When we were confronted with stunning weather again at the end of June, many tens of thousands of people ignored our advice and travelled by road and rail to visit our beaches. Over the preceding few weeks and since the previous influx of visitors we had scaled up, with most public toilets now open and a good proportion of the seasonal staff employed but the challenges were the same: overcrowding, illegal parking, anti-social behaviour, overnight camping and gridlock. The numbers were overwhelming. We even had to use security guards to protect refuse teams emptying our overflowing bins.
We were appalled. On just one day we issued 993 fixed penalty notices for illegal parking and collected over 50 tonnes of waste from the seafront.
The decision to declare a major incident and face national news coverage wasn’t an easy one. We are incredibly proud of our reputation as a leading tourist destination and the industry is worth over £1 billion to our area and supports well over 17,000 jobs; but we knew that our brand had to be secondary to the welfare of our local community and environment. The tourism business were incredibly supportive despite facing huge challenges themselves. The declaration allowed us to bring agencies together to safeguard the public and sent a clear message to people thinking of travelling to Dorset that now was not the time.
As a result of our experiences we have introduced parking marshals at busy car park entrances, extended and increased the visibility of our security and first aid/welfare provision, enhanced our travel warnings and put plans in place to close specific roads if necessary. Multi-agency summer specific meetings were already taking place but these have been scaled up with tactical plans agreed with the Local Resilience Forum and weekly meetings to ensure our resources are ready to meet anticipated demand.
With our full complement of summer staff now in place and visitors now having a far wider range of attractions to visit due to the reopening of our hospitality industry, we are truly excited to welcome the return of responsible visitors to our town.
What have we learned from the experience?
A particular frustration has been our inability to raise the level of parking fines which are too low to discourage illegal parking. We have appealed to the Government to change this situation and are also introducing a towing contractor to tackle parked cars that cause dangerous obstructions.
We continue to lobby the Government for funding to support the financial shortfall caused by Covid-19, estimated to be at least £31.3m. We are one of 12 councils to have submitted a case study detailing our costs and specific situation. As you can imagine, we keenly await their response.
One upside of the experience is that I’ve seen the extent of our frontline team’s capabilities. Despite operating in a permanent state of problem-solving and overstretch, the seafront, environmental services, communities, transport and parking departments worked together to deliver well and to deliver fast. Decisions were recorded appropriately, risks mitigated and workforces well-managed. I was proud of the team’s response.
Throughout this crisis, we have been humbled by the efforts of the local community to support each other and the ability of staff to step up to the challenge. As a result, we may have a stronger, more connected community than any of us have ever known.
Cllr Vikki Slade is leader of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council