At the time of writing this column, we find ourselves at the beginning of a lockdown that none of us know how long will last.
While we come to terms with the disorientating, dislocating effects of a substantially different way of life, the vital role local government will play in steering us through this crisis is, for many, already self-evident.
I know I will be preaching to the converted when I say that the attributes the sector has always displayed, but especially during the lean years of recent times, will be needed now more than ever. Its resilience, ingenuity and leadership, not to mention its specialist knowledge and ability to troubleshoot in difficult circumstances, puts local authorities at the heart of this fight. It might be a global pandemic we’re dealing with, but the battle against coronavirus is an inherently local one.
Councils are at the frontline in ensuring those who are isolated, vulnerable and in need of support, receive the wrap-around care they require. Their understanding of the communities they serve and ability to disseminate information to residents, including ‘at risk’ groups, will be universally relied upon over the coming weeks, particularly by central Government and the voluntary and community sector.
Equally, the trust and respect they still enjoy in many communities will have to be harnessed to provide reassurance and stability during what is, for many of us, a worrying time.
Much of the burden will, I suspect, inevitably fall on local authorities, at least for the first few weeks of this crisis.
On top of the significant increase in casework on things like the Discretionary Housing Fund – the measures the Government has announced to help protect businesses and support families through this challenging time, although incredibly welcome, will primarily have to be administered by council officers. Moreover, while mechanisms are being devised to ensure those on the shielded list are thoroughly protected and looked after, this is a complex, intricate process that will take time to implement.
I know many local authorities are having to tie together the loose ends and pick up the slack on a number of fronts in the interim.
Lots of the people who require shielding will already be known to councils through the streams of support they oversee, but there will be many others that are not. Take, for example, people who have never claimed any form of benefits, have otherwise lived healthy lives, but who are in remission for cancer.
There is a huge logistical challenge in working at pace, and across various agencies, to identify these individuals and ensure they are receiving the support they need to keep themselves safe.
All of this comes at a time when the sector is under immense pressure itself. Having to adapt to new work practices with limited staff capacity, unmanned call centres and various IT issues will not make the task any easier, nor will the minefield that is GDPR.
Contractors are understandably experiencing similar problems in their workforce, already forcing many authorities to amend normal services, as has been the case in my own borough – Bromley – where it has been necessary to temporarily suspend the collection of green waste and recyclable materials.
Local authorities must be given the latitude they need to discharge their duties, and I am pleased to see that a degree of flexibility has already been granted on the deadline for local government financial audits and Freedom of Information requests. Both are entirely pragmatic concessions that will offer some breathing space.
Councils also need to be able to take decisions safe in the confidence that central Government stands behind them. That means guaranteeing the reimbursement of costs and, importantly, not hanging leaders out to dry or unfairly seeking to scapegoat individuals if things go wrong.
Finally, we need to provide every possible support to council officers. They are at the vanguard of our collective response, will be under immense pressure to deliver, and deserve our respect and recognition for the essential work they are doing and the emotional investment it often requires.
Now is the time to work together and share best practice, particularly in areas like our engagement with volunteers and charities, where there remain vast discrepancies in approach.
Once we’re through the other side, I’ll be the first to raise a toast in thanks to local government and its invaluable contribution towards defeating COVID-19.
Sir Bob Neill MP is a former local government minister and is chair of the Commons Justice Committee