As councils prepare for a second wave, they are held back by the centre

By Pawda Tjoa | 23 July 2020

As events in Leicester, Bradford, Kirklees and Blackburn have shown, the next stage of the COVID-19 pandemic is local. As councils begin to recover from the pandemic, they will also bear responsibility for monitoring local outbreaks and responding to possible spikes.

Increased powers announced last week go some way towards equipping local government for this huge responsibility. However, after a pandemic blighted by centralism, our latest Leadership Index survey reveals significant concerns over the lack of funding and data being provided to councils from central government. 

Here are our key findings:

  1. Councils are planning for a resurgence of COVID-19 cases but they need more support from central government. We found that a large majority of councils (91 per cent) are concerned about the impact of a potential second wave of COVID-19 cases in their local area. London and Metropolitan boroughs appear to be the most worried, as the pandemic poses some unique challenges for more urban areas. In response, as many as 95 per cent of council chiefs say that their councils are already putting plans in place to tackle a potential resurgence of cases. But councils are still not getting enough support from central government in their efforts to tackle the pandemic locally. Given that the government’s spending looks likely to cover only about 80 per cent of the total costs from the first wave of the pandemic, 85 per cent of council chiefs are now calling for more funding to help them confront a resurgence of cases.

 

Next on councils’ list of top priorities is speedier data sharing, and better-quality data from government. Indeed, since the launch of the national tracing programme, local public health teams have struggled to obtain necessary data to help them spot new outbreaks in the local area at the earliest opportunity. Two-tier authorities particularly struggle to obtain all the information quickly enough. One respondent said, 'A large outbreak is very probably a small outbreak which wasn't grasped in time.  The data will never be perfect; we must have the mutual trust and confidence to move early with information that is "good enough".'

 

  1. The lack of clarity in government’s messaging and popular fatigue could seriously undermine compliance to new guidelines. As the country emerges from the first wave of the pandemic and moves from a national lockdown approach to a more localised strategy, there are questions about how likely people would comply with any new restrictions. Our survey shows that about three quarters of council chiefs feel confident that people in their area will comply with new government guidelines.

But respondents point to the lack of clarity in government’s messaging (81 per cent), popular fatigue with restrictions (79 per cent), and low confidence and trust in the Government (58 per cent) as the main factors that might undermine compliance. Several respondents also point to the effect of high-profile flaunting of previous regulations, with one saying, 'Compliance was good until the Cummings affair. Since then the compliant are those in fear and many others can't see why they should obey rules that don't apply to elites.'

  1. Confidence level across key service areas have fallen to the lowest levels. Following the government’s pledge of full reimbursement of local government response to COVID-19, we saw some optimism among councils about their ability to deliver key local services. Since then, the government has rowed back on that promise, and are instead expecting councils to 'share the burden' by tapping into their reserves. This has put several councils, especially those with low reserves, at risk of issuing a section 114 notice, while others are forced to make their staff redundant. One respondent expressed this frustration, 'We were told to do what was necessary and that the govt would stand "shoulder to shoulder" with us. The government have not kept their promise and we are having to cut services and make staff redundant to pay for their lack of promise keeping.'

Unsurprisingly, we’re now seeing a significant drop in confidence across all key service areas, to the lowest level ever seen for most since we launched the first Leadership Index survey in 2018. This drop in confidence is most severe in adult social care, falling by 30 per cent since last quarter, to its lowest ever level of 34/100. A similarly bleak picture can be seen in children’s services and environmental services, both falling by over 25 per cent. Confidence level across housing, economic development and health and wellbeing has also fallen since the last quarter.

As councils continue to work under an extremely demanding set of circumstances, council chiefs are urgently calling for a fundamental change in the way central government works with local government. Council chiefs welcome the new powers but they seek clarity on their new powers to act, as well as more flexibility to use any funding to meet local needs. Several respondents emphasised the need for better joint working between central and local governments, with one respondent saying,

'We would like to receive accurate and clear guidance from government in a timely manner .... This hasn’t happened to date and councils are expected to put in place measures to achieve the desired outcome almost overnight. It is extremely difficult to second guess the announcements and then act when there are too many unanswered questions.'

It is not too late for the government to rebuild public trust but they should remember it must be earned through a different and more collaborative way of working with local partners, one that is less top-down, and much more responsive to what’s happening on the ground.

The full report is available here

Pawda Tjoa is senior policy researcher at the New Local Government Network (NLGN)

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