The effect of the strong and prompt actions that local authorities have taken to restrict the spread and address the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has shown the important role that they have in their communities. They need to fulfil various responsibilities, as well as taking account of the impact of the pandemic on the way they operate.
The urgent needs and long-term effects mean that local authorities have needed to apply their already stretched resources to providing support, ensuring that essential services are delivered and enforcing restrictions where these affect a local authority’s discharge of its functions or apply to its premises. Local authorities have also needed to consider exercising powers given to them to give directions relating to premises, events and public outdoor places in their areas where they have considered these necessary and proportionate to address the threat to public health, at the same time as taking account of restrictions imposed at regional and national levels by governments.
The crisis has also had practical implications for the ways local authorities operate. They have needed to address the impact on their methods of working and communication, consider how it affects their objectives and priorities, and identify what adjustments they need to make to comply with all their duties and meet the needs of the people they serve. Relevant issues include:
- The obligations that local authorities need to meet. Local authorities have a range of duties relating to the services they deliver and issues which they are required to take into account. The effect of the pandemic and action taken to address it could have an impact on their ability to meet these. For example, local authorities have a duty to secure that efficient education is available to meet the needs of the population of their areas. Whilst there have been many changes to the way that education is delivered over the years, the availability of schools providing high quality education has remained constant. Now that access to schools is limited because of the need for social distancing, providers of education face new challenges in ensuring that the availability and quality of education does not suffer.
- The objectives and priorities of local authorities and the actions that they take to achieve these. Local authorities set themselves objectives and priorities to enable them to comply with their best value duty and other duties. They might need to adjust projects that they have planned to achieve these objectives, in the light for the need for changes in behaviour because of the coronavirus. For example, a local authority might have developed initiatives to encourage the use of public transport as a way of pursuing environmental protection and sustainability objectives. Such initiatives will not be appropriate at a time when the need for social distancing will have an impact on the availability and use of public transport.
- Decision making and democratic accountability. Legislation was made which allows members of local authorities to attend meetings remotely. This means that local authorities have been able to use technology to ensure that there has been no interruption in decision making and to maintain public confidence in the transparency of decisions. They have also made use of delegated authority which has enabled some decisions to be taken without the need for meetings. As the pandemic continues, local authorities will need to ensure that they have appropriate and effective arrangements in place for remote meetings and that their constitutions make provision for these.
- Use of external service providers. An unfortunate consequence of the actions taken to address the pandemic has been the difficulties faced by businesses, particularly those that rely on face to face contact with people. If local authorities have outsourced services to contractors, they will need to know that there will not be any interruption or deterioration in the quality of services because of financial and other practical problems experienced by contractors. Local authorities could also find it useful to consider how they might be able to make use of flexibility in their contracts to address changes in their needs for particular needs of services. The UK Government published helpful procurement policy notes, which provided guidance on how contracting authorities could address the problems of their contractors whilst complying with the law on public procurement. The guidance recognised the need for contracting authorities to take action to ensure the strength and sustainability of their services by recognising the immediate concerns of their contractors but also considering how to meet the authorities’ ongoing and long-term needs for services. They need to identify practical solutions which take account of the requirements of their contracts, as well as their obligations under public procurement legislation, contract law, their fiduciary duty and any other legal obligations. They need to ensure that any actions they take amount to reasonable exercise of their powers.
Local authorities are also having to cope with the effects of the pandemic in their capacity as landowners, tenants and employers, in the same way as many other organisations and individuals. They do this whilst meeting the many demands for their services and fulfilling their various roles as local authorities. Officers are faced with the usual demands of using their authority’s resources to satisfy all legal obligations and meet the needs of their communities, whilst facing the additional pressures caused by the pandemic. In order to continue meeting needs effectively, it will be essential for local authorities to understand fully their obligations and the powers and resources available to them.
Tiffany Cloynes is partner and head of public sector (England) and Clare Hardy is senior associate at Geldards LLP