We need to be ready to cope with the next shock

By Ian Miller | 27 March 2020

What extraordinary times. All councils, including districts, have had to adjust rapidly: ruthless prioritisation of services, new ways of working being implemented at great speed, entirely new services such as the Local Support System. Readers of The MJ will join me in wishing everyone in local government well during these exceptionally testing times.

For many years the Government’s National Risk Register identified pandemic flu as the event that has the highest relative impact and a relatively high likelihood of happening. It accurately predicted that ‘normal life’ is likely to face wider social and economic disruption, and significant threats to the continuity of essential services. When the opportunity to reflect comes, I feel the conclusion may be reached that the UK was not well prepared.

The national legislative, fiscal and policy responses seem to have been developed in haste – it is not clear that there were ‘off the shelf’ products available, whether draft legislation or draft schemes of business support. Consider four different decisions about the scope of business rate relief in the fortnight since the Budget.  My own council’s business continuity plan was written to cater for loss of a building or ICT. We wrote a new plan for a scenario of reduced staffing and protecting a narrow core of essential services.

The financial position of all councils is being degraded – income down, reserves significantly depleted. Unlike private companies, no district will dismiss staff or ask the Government to pay 80% of wages. Let us hope that the Government’s financial support for councils will be deeper during 2020, so that we can survive the disruption to our economy.  2021 will need to see significant upward movement in Government grant, not least to fix the social care crisis, and realisation that districts now need  tools to allow sustainable self-financing: no central limits on council tax, powers to set licensing and planning fees, a new tourism tax and so on. Retreating to our essential statutory functions has demonstrated why it will be increasingly essential to build on work for town and parish councils to take over discretionary assets, such as parks and toilets. We need to be ready to cope with the next shock – the effects of climate change, another pandemic flu – and have the capacity to sustain the things we have to do.

Ian Miller is chief executive of Wyre Forest DC

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