– By Leader of the Opposition, Councillor Julia Potts
As we all see the continual 24/7 news coverage of Covid-19, I take a brief look at what this means for one district council, and how they begin to manage a National crisis that no amount of contingency planning had ever expected to see unfold.
As the former Leader of the Council, now Leader of the Opposition I have received calls from residents, voluntary organisations, developers, and other stakeholders who live or work in Waverley, trying to understand what this means for the Council.
Waverley itself is a fairly affluent, geographically large, semi rural borough in South West Surrey, with a population of approximately 124,000. It comprises a large number of villages, and the market towns of Farnham, Godalming, and Haslemere, with Cranleigh the largest village in the East. 90% of businesses are SME’s. The local economy is predominantly Retail & Wholesale, Education, Professional & Technical services, Construction (local services to local people) and ICT.
Since May 2019 the Council has been led by a Rainbow Alliance of Residents, Lib Dems, Green, Labour & Independents, whilst The Conservative Party remain the largest single political group. The Council itself comprises some 57 Councillors and delivers 110 plus services to the local community. The significant numbers of villages in the borough mean that it comprises some 21 Parish Councils and a huge network of voluntary organisations.
I had been briefed by senior officers in early March explaining business continuity plans were being put in place should the Covid situation escalate. On March 19th joint telephone conversations between me, the Leader of the Council and CEO acknowledged the situation was rapidly escalating. Party Politics ceased as we all came together cross party that day, recognising that this was a pivotal moment with the Political Group Leaders defining a form of cooperative working protocol for the crisis.
The Surrey Local Resilience Forum (LRF) had just declared a Major Incident in Surrey in relation to COVID-19. Everything in terms of the way the Council would operate – its priorities and service delivery instantly changed. The way of ‘doing politics ‘changed. Whilst parts of Waverley had suffered devastating damage in 2013/14 from severe flooding, many losing their homes as a result, that had probably been one of the most severe issues faced overall by the borough, its residents and councillors in recent decades.
The term Major Incident means very simply an event or situation with a range of serious consequences requiring special arrangements to be implemented by one or more emergency responder agency. In Surrey this is coordinated through Surrey County Council, Surrey Police and Surrey Fire & Rescue Service, and leads the response to COVID-19. It is worth bearing in mind that there is now a similar response template across the U.K.
Dedicated project teams comprising Senior Council Officers, Military Planners, Emergency responder personnel and other key private sector stakeholders are working 24/7.
The Waverley role has changed as many services have been suspended ensuring service delivery centres on the health, well being and safety of Waverley residents, businesses and the most vulnerable. Many Officers work from home, many redeployed to focus on core priorities i.e. Surrey helpline for the vulnerable, working with Day Centres and Voluntary Sector to deliver Community Meals and assistance to the most vulnerable, administering additional Revenues and Benefits, Universal Credit which have seen a phenomenal increase in applications, and the new Business Support Grants which required new software and staff training. And of course focus on the all important local economic recovery.
Many questions have been raised with me about the Planning function. Government have directed that it must continue. We clearly need to look at ensuring the longer economic recovery; I would agree that is crucial. For Councils that must be balanced with staffing challenges, social distancing guidance, how site visits by Officers and even Councillors would be managed, how a planning committee is held i.e. plans and documents shared through to the debate and decision-making process. This is a logistical colossus for a council like Waverley with 5 planning committees currently.
As Councils manage with significantly fewer staff due to sickness and care responsibilities, redeploying many to priority services, they now have other challenges with legislation passed to enable ‘virtual meetings’ such as Full Council, Licensing and Planning. Councils now have to roll out robust IT systems, testing and training users, again all remotely. They have to enable councillor, officer participation in a transparent and democratic way. Of course it can and will happen however the enormity of this task alone should not be underestimated
As many will know the majority of Local Authorities are financially challenged and this has seen a catastrophic financial impact with loss of income streams from Leisure Centres, Car parks, Building Control, Halls & Venues, Business Rates, Planning applications etc. Whilst the Belwin scheme assists L.A’s in such circumstances, it is unlikely to cover the true financial shortfall. Districts and Boroughs like Waverley have worked tirelessly balancing their budgets as Government grants have ceased, and this begs the question, long term, what will our districts and boroughs look like in 2 years time, will this be a catalyst for a bigger change, not just in structure but in many other working practices. Will we see more Unitrys evolve as part of that recovery? The SOS for Health announced £13.4bn debt write off for NHS Trusts which is absolutely laudable, however it is worth observing, and Councils have to deliver a balanced budget and cannot run a deficit. Many provide various health and social care services, how will their crucial contribution to this crisis be recognised as the impact bites.
I have reflected on a few consequences, the ongoing work is huge; however it is important to draw on the positives. I see and hear across Surrey and other counties of improved political and officer working relationships, greater collaboration between the Parish councils, and both voluntary sector and many councillors really stepping up to the challenges faced within their local community.
Since being elected in 2011, I have never been more proud of Waverley Borough Council as an organisation, its staff, councillors and wider local community. As a part of the Local Government family I am immensely proud of the way in which Councils, up and down our country continue to face the challenges of this Global Crisis at local level.