Life today is very different to what any of us would have imagined just a couple of months ago. If you had asked me what the biggest challenge for Buckinghamshire would have been in April 2020, the historic launch of a brand-new council replacing the out-dated 45-year-old two-tier system would have been top of the list.
The reality is, not only have we managed to do just that when so many said it was impossible in the timescale, we have also done it alongside responding to the biggest global pandemic in living memory.
The truth is that no amount of planning could prepare us for launching a new council amidst a pandemic of this scale, however through meticulous pre-planning for the new council and a huge effort from officers and members across the board, we were able to hit the ground running, coming together before our official launch, united, both as one council for Buckinghamshire and in our determined fight against coronavirus.
The road to create Buckinghamshire Council has been long and hard but we have emerged with a strong team of elected members and a newly-appointed senior leadership team committed to the needs of our local communities.
There are so many benefits of a unitary council that we will see emerge over the coming months and years – be that working together to protect essential frontline services, a simpler council for our residents to engage with, better value for money in more joined-up services, less duplication and a stronger voice to champion for Buckinghamshire at a national level.
It is now more than ever where we will see the benefits of being one team, as we combine with organisations, groups and communities in our county to support, protect and rally around our communities in this crisis. And since the 1 April launch day, for an organisation, merely days old the successes are already in abundance.
The world-renowned Stoke Mandeville Olympic Lodge has been converted into a 240-bed care and reablement centre to look after vulnerable adults in less than three weeks.
The centre will care for hospital patients who no longer require acute care but are not quite ready to go home together with people living at home who, temporarily, are unable to remain there because they have no support.
We have established eight new Local Support Hubs working with local communities to provide everything from the delivery of essential food, collecting prescriptions and making sure those most vulnerable who may not have people around them for that additional support get everything they need to help with daily living.
Then there is the amazing response by over 1,200 local volunteers to our call for support to help older and more vulnerable people.
When we thought setting up a single IT platform and a new website was a challenge in itself, we have managed to also facilitate working from home, including online collaboration and meeting spaces, an online Community Support Hub and a directory of help available for the local community, new social media accounts and communication channels and a series of daily video updates coming directly from my study at home. Thanks also to all the staff – more than 2,000 are now working from home or seconded into alternative roles.
Although these examples may not be unique to Buckinghamshire, what is, however, is that this has been achieved alongside launching into the new world of a unitary authority.
It is these examples, together with countless others, that demonstrate what can be achieved in short timescales and reflect the work of the shadow authority and the collaborative way the unitary preparations were conducted over the last 18 months, helping to build both relationships and trust.
The joint working across the NHS, our LEP, emergency services, town and parish councils, businesses and countless local community groups has been overwhelming.
While we might be heading into our first year of the new council with 202 members of the former councils as opposed to the 147 that were due to be elected in May, each and every one has stepped forward to provide important democratic representation and support for their communities. This speaks volumes for the future of our new council.
When five councils become one, some faces are new and working practices and approaches will differ. This has been no discernible barrier in Buckinghamshire.
Perhaps there has simply been no time to dwell on these issues as we have been thrust centre stage just like all councils across the country. We are all expected to deliver for our residents, businesses and communities. I know reorganisation has helped play its part in galvanising our determination and commitment to achieving that.
Cllr Martin Tett is leader of newly-founded Buckinghamshire Council