Switching to more unitary authorities and directly elected mayors must be achieved by consent

8 Sep

“More elected mayors and fewer councils to break Labour’s red wall strongholds,” declared the Sunday Times over the weekend. It is already Government policy to encourage more areas to become unitary authorities and for more directly elected mayors to be installed. But this report suggests that a White Paper on devolution, to be published next month, will give these changes more impetus. It says:

Dozens more elected mayors and the abolition of many councils are being planned under a shake-up of local government due to be unveiled next month.

“Ministers want to devolve more power to areas that agree to new elected mayors, who they argue are more accountable and better at boosting local economies. Conservatives have also proved more successful in winning mayoralties in “red wall” areas than they have in winning Labour-controlled councils. However, a fight looms over plans to abolish significant numbers of district councils, many of them Tory-controlled, as part of plans for a slimmed-down local government system.

“Downing Street denied that they wanted to abolish two thirds of authorities by replacing district councils with unitary authorities, and insisted change would happen only with local consent. However, ministers do want to move towards more single-tier council areas, which the County Councils Network estimates would save £3 billion a year.

“District councils oppose the move, saying it would create unwieldy mega-authorities responsible for more than a million people each, far larger than local government units in other countries. A cap of about 600,000 people in any unitary authority is being considered as one way of avoiding this.”

Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, “is seen as the prototype for winning Tory control of local government in the north and Midlands.”

It will be interesting to see what the devolution White Paper comes up with. But if the principle is maintained of local consent, it is hard to see how the change could be as dramatic as the tone of the Sunday Times piece suggests.

A quote from a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman in the Daily Telegraph yesterday sought to offer calm:

“We want to devolve and decentralise to give more power to local communities, providing opportunities for all areas to enjoy devolution.

“But there will be no blanket abolishment of district councils and no top-down restructuring of local government. The devolution White Paper, which will be published this autumn, will set out our detailed plans and we continue to work closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

The Telegraph report added some welcome news:

“Local communities could also seek to scrap modern municipal area names to give people a better sense of the history of where they live under the plans.

Another Government insider said: “We want to extend devolution to the whole country so that all areas benefit from this. It should not just be the big urban areas, it should be shires too, working closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

Campaigners who have been urging the Government to reinstate historic county names welcomed the news. Pam Moorhouse, the British Counties campaign, said: “Traditional county names were taken off us by Edward Heath in 1974 so it is about time they came back because millions want them.”

Under the changes, west Midlands could revert to Warwickshire, Cumbria could be replaced by Cumberland and Westmorland while Merseyside could be scrapped and replaced by a larger Lancashire.”

Last year, James Brokenshire, when he was Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, said:

“Locally-led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can – with local support – be an appropriate means of ensuring more sustainable local government and local service delivery, enhanced local accountability, and empowered local communities. This statement today continues the Government’s commitment to supporting those councils that wish to combine, to serve their communities better and will consider unitarisation and mergers between councils when locally requested. However, I recognise that unitarisation may not be appropriate everywhere. I also recognise that it is essential that any local government restructuring should be on the basis of locally led proposals and should not involve top-down Whitehall solutions being imposed on areas. The Government does not support top-down unitary restructuring. This has been the Government’s consistent approach since 2010.”

I suspect that approach will continue. Not least because a significant shift towards unitary authorities is already happening and has been taking place for a number of years.

The Conservative Manifesto last year merely stated:

“We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK. Our ambition is for full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and others, so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny. We will publish an English Devolution White Paper setting out our plans next year.”

It would be a bit of stretch to take that as a mandate for forced abolition of all the district councils.

There is a strong case for unitary status – with respect to both democracy and efficiency – in terms of ending duplication. The waste and confusion of residents of a town having two sets of councillors, a town hall and a county hall, two local authority chief executives on six-figure salaries… For example, it is not good for accountability that if the county council puts up the Council Tax, but the district council is blamed – because the bills are sent out at district level.

More contentious is the “economies of scale” argument. The logic of this is that the bigger the resulting unitary authority, the better. Ken Livingstone proposed replacing the 32 London boroughs with five “sub-regional partnerships” that would appear by dividing the map of London into slices of cake. That was not inspiring for local identity. But nor is it necessary for efficiency. Councils have alternatives to running everything themselves – such as sharing services or contracting them out to private companies. Flexibility is an example. The tri-borough arrangements for Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster delivered great savings. But offering big contracts can also limit competition by making it harder for smaller firms to tender – I have written for this site about this being a difficulty in terms of school transport for disabled children.

It may make sense for a compromise where, rather than a county council swallowing up all the district councils, we have two or three unitary councils across a district.

Directly elected mayors come in two types. There are the Metro Mayors who run “combined authorities” as an extra layer on top of other local authorities. Examples include Andy Street in the West Midlands and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. They have powers for regeneration and integrated transport. They will naturally lobby for more power and larger budgets. They are a legacy from the Labour Government’s Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and are almost inevitably a corporatist force seeking greater state intervention.

Then there is the situation where a local authority replaces a council leader with a directly elected Mayor. Examples of where this has happened include Bristol, Middlesbrough, Leicester, and Watford. It has been implemented in several London boroughs – most unhappily in Tower Hamlets. It does provide an opportunity to shake up complacent, monolithic councils – not least by giving a chance for independents with a strong background in business or community service. Unlike the Metro Mayors, these local authority mayors are created (and could be abolished) via a referendum. Why not allow referendums to get rid of the Metro Mayors?

Eric Pickles, was a fearless radical as Communities and Local Government Secretary. Yet before entering Government he told this site:

“I’ll have a pearl-handled revolver waiting in my drawer for the first civil servant who suggests another local government reorganisation.”

Those of us who would like to see more unitary councils and directly-elected Mayors have to persuade others in our communities. However frustrating it might be for those in Downing Street, a different approach would be unlikely to be politically acceptable. Nor would it be justified.

Chris Criscione: Financially reckless councils are the exception, not the rule

2 Sep

Cllr Chris Criscione is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Uttlesford District Council and a member of the Council’s Investment Board.

Recent coverage on local authority finance, shrouded in controversy over prudence and proportionality, as Council’s look to cover their costs through continued investment in commercial property, has shed light on an increasingly complex and rather gloomy state of affairs. One that preceded the public health emergency, but certainly have been worsened by its arrival. Concerns around the attitude of some local authorities in pushing the boundaries of acceptability in terms of risk and exposure are yet to overcome the very fact that this behaviour is a necessity in the absence of government funding and any reasonable alternative.

The local authority, standing on the principles of an unerring social conscience and a commitment to delivering good public services for all within its boundaries, has to meet the challenge before it. It has to accept that top-down government funding and intervention is not sustainable and, bluntly, just not right for those who continue to argue for devolution across the country. You can’t have your cake and eat it. So, what then?

For many authorities, the choice is between cutting public services, raising council-tax to eye-watering levels with adverse impacts on the taxpayer – a process that would require direct consent through referenda – or seeking alternative funding through commercial investments. The latter is certainly the most credible first step that has been taken up as the total amount of investments by local authorities exceeds £6.6bn, and on the basis that cuts and tax-rises should be a last resort. But many are asking, has the system allowed for it to take place in a responsible fashion?

On the whole, most would agree that it has. Local authorities should understand that whilst they need to provide certainty around funding as they move into a self-sustaining future, they also need to act with prudence and proportionality in all their endeavours; or it could end up costing them beyond their wildest imagination. But – and in this instance it seems to be a huge “but” that has caught the eye of government and the independent regulators that concern themselves with public finance – some have thrown the rulebook out of the window in moves that are may ruin things for the many.

The government’s review into local authority borrowing (the PWLB consultation) seems to have been motivated by the recklessness of authorities who have borrowed well in excess of their annual budgets and spending power without any consideration of expected yield, year-on-year. It would be fair to say that the scale of investment on an authority-by-authority basis is concerning in some cases. However, the return on investment (ROI) presented by the secured investments is of the greatest significance because it seems to completely ignore the need to consider the principles of opportunity-cost, value for money, exposure, and, again to put it bluntly: the entire point of the whole exercise. For Spelthorne, their billion pound investment portfolio delivered near to 1% ROI in the last year; a stark figure when you consider that they are looking to meet the shortfall caused by decreases in government funding and other key revenue streams that total well in excess of this in coming years.

It is a shame that it seems as if the most reckless authorities who lack good governance, sound independent advice, and prudence in their interactions, have at first glance ruined the opportunity for others. In Uttlesford, the District where I sit as a councillor, and as a member of the Council’s Investment Board; borrowing arrangements, the perceived strength of investments vis-à-vis the loan period and market conditions, as well as a consideration of yield, dominate our conversations at every turn. There is much to consider, but at all times councillors put the need to meet the “gap” in funding at the forefront of our minds as we consider opportunities.

How can it be that authorities seemed to have abused lax-funding arrangements and the trust of their residents to secure investment portfolios in excess of £1bn without considering the whole motivation behind the operation? If we are to continue to build a self-sustaining future for local authorities, we must put the goal and objective front and centre, not the eagerness to trail-blaze or to do something just because one is able to do so. This is a means to an ever-ambiguous end, not a profit-making exercise to put authorities in history books (seemingly for the wrong reasons).

In my humble opinion, it’s not the Government’s rules and regulations that have caused this recklessness to take root, but the complete ignorance of the local authorities who have lost all comprehension of the goal and objective of the process. One can only hope that the Government comes down hard on them for their decisions, but without ruining it for the other authorities – totalling in the hundreds – who just want to build a better Council for their residents in the circumstances.

Many authorities will be looking to meet the challenge of balancing their budgets with a sense of optimism that they can write their own destiny through their own actions and without the help of central government. It’s not a process that delivers untold levels of satisfaction, or indeed one that presents a welcome challenge given the circumstances and timescales with which we are faced; but it is an opportunity nevertheless. That is provided that the government sees the good intentions of the bulk of authorities and treats the reckless ones as the exception to the rule.

Greig Baker: Council borrowing was meant to fund public works improvements – not speculative investments

25 Aug

Greig Baker is the Chairman of the Canterbury Conservatives Association.

The ice edges of Norwegian glaciers that have held their secrets for millennia are being slowly forced back by searing temperatures. As the white stuff disappears, archaeologists are being presented with Viking walking sticks, weapons, and even human remains that haven’t seen daylight in generations. While the summer sunshine is also beating down on our own villages and towns, it is the COVID-inspired lockdown, rather than the unseasonal weather, that is lifting the veil on some of our Local Authorities’ age-old secrets. Unfortunately, the discoveries are often just as grisly as anything you might find in a Norseman’s fjord.

Worse, our Councils’ artefacts have little to do with some ancient Danegeld and everything to do with the pound in your pocket right now. Because the national lockdown has revealed the flaws in ludicrously ambitious gambles taken by many Councils that decided to become speculative property investors, placing bets on your behalf with debt doled out by the ‘Public Works Loan Board’, or PWLB.

The PWLB is different to most lenders. For a start, it has, until recently, been formally led by twelve Commissioners on behalf of the Crown, using powers dating back to 1875. More importantly, it also takes a rather unusual approach to approving loans to Councils asking to take out debt on your behalf: there is no assessment of a Council’s ability to repay; no investigation into how the money will be used; and no paper trail, because all applications have to be made by phone with funds normally issued within two days. To further sweeten the deal, the PWLB lets Councils take out large loans at cheaper-than-market rates – normally around 1.91 per cent for a 5 year loan and around 2.45 per cent for a 45 year loan.

Unsurprisingly, Councils have been rushing headlong into these new debt deals. It is not uncommon for the PWLB to issue more than 1,000 loans a year, taking the outstanding principal owed by Councils to more than £85.7 billion at the last count. Now, the cost of COVID might have taken some of the shock out of such figures, but when you get up around the £90 billion figure, then pretty soon you’re talking real money (actually, about £1,400 of new debt for every individual woman, man and child in the country).

That debt is not evenly spread between Councils, either, since a few have chosen to make their own mountains out of it. A handful of Local Authorities with existing extensive PWLB debt are the most likely to apply for additional loans – partly because of their familiarity with the system and partly because of their growing reliance upon it. The National Audit Office reports that 80 per cent of the cumulative PWLB spending used to buy commercial property is done by only 14 per cent of Local Authorities.

And that’s where the real rub lies. The PWLB was originally established to fund essential capital projects specific to local areas. But some of our more ‘inventive’ Councils have been using these loans to gamble on commercial property purchases (incredibly, often outside their local patch), hoping that the rent from private tenants would cover overspending elsewhere. The most active of these Councils have really been getting stuck in, with a handful ramping up their median gross external borrowing levels from three per cent of their spending power in 2015-16 to 756 per cent of their spending power in 2018-19. To put that in practical terms, one Council with gross annual income of about £70 million took on £380 million of debt to fund just one deal – effectively making them major property speculators that only dabble in public services.

There are three big problems with all of this.

First, most voters don’t know it is happening – and they probably wouldn’t appreciate their Council taking on risky debts to drive up local property prices if they did. The NAO warns there is “insufficient transparency and reporting to elected members or the public; limited internal challenge to decision making; [and] reduced governance to enable faster decision-making”. That can’t be good.

Second, the Council Officers designing these debt-funded speculations, and the Councillors signing them off, rarely have any particular idea what they’re getting into. Using vast amounts of debt to buy commercial property on the high street – when online shopping was already changing the business case for it, even before visitors were locked down and locked out – must rank up there with Gordon selling the gold as an astute investment decision. They have been betting on red when the roulette ball has been comfortably settled on black for some time.

And third, like a racetrack loser hoping for one last chance to get back level, as things go belly up, profligate Councils will claim Whitehall did not give them enough money in the first place and, worse, turn to taxpayers across the country to bail them out.

Thankfully, the new Government is starting to get a handle on things and introduce some accountability to what has been a worryingly opaque system. As of this year, the Treasury has assumed effective control of the PWLB and HMG is trying to ensure investments focus on housing, infrastructure, and front-line services. It has also warned Councils that they should stop making “speculative commercial investments” before they come a cropper.

To be fair, some Councils are also looking at alternative sources of cash, such as issuing debt themselves through a new Municipal Bonds Agency – though this obviously still carries significant risk for the taxpaying public.

In addition, I’d like to see a cultural change. If Councils feel they really have to borrow to boost their area, they could use that money to attract and retain private investment – for example, by continuing the suspension of Business Rates or resisting the temptation to charge for the parking that the public has already paid for (twice). Local Authorities could even remove their own incentive to fund speculation with debt by simply spending less.

In my day job, I run a political intelligence agency and we try to help clients see what’s coming around the corner. For four years, we have been writing briefings about what would happen when the next downturn revealed Councils’ use of PWLB debt and the knock-on effect on Local Authorities’ ability to fund local amenities, spend (and spend effectively) on infrastructure projects, and create a positive environment for local businesses to flourish and genuinely create wealth for local communities. Sadly, that downturn has now come on the heels of a virus.

COVID-19, like some contagious version of melting Scandinavian ice, is going to reveal a lot about local public finances that people would have preferred stayed hidden. It’s worth remembering that state employees, as admirable as some are, rarely have special investment insights. In fact, they are just ordinary people, perhaps even your neighbours and, newly denuded by lockdown, some of their choices about what to do with your money are looking pretty silly.

As archaeologists root around in the Norwegian sludge, I’m reminded of the legend that the Viking god Odin gave an eye in return for knowledge. Now we know how some Councils spend our money, I fear it will cost us an arm and a leg.

Meghan Gallacher: The Scottish Government must deliver a recovery plan for Councils

20 Aug

Cllr Meghan Gallacher is the Leader of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Group on North Lanarkshire Council.

Before the Coronavirus outbreak, Councils across Scotland were under severe financial strain due to a decade of cuts administered by the SNP-led Scottish Government, exacerbated by a 10-year Council Tax freeze throttling income generation. Local Authorities appear to be an afterthought when it comes to the Nationalists and you could be mistaken for believing that they are an inconvenience to the current Scottish Administration. However, as cases of Coronavirus increased throughout the country in March, councils in Scotland found themselves at the forefront of the pandemic, providing support to many people and businesses.

It is easy to underestimate the vast amount of work carried out by local authorities in Scotland. Councils are the backbone of the governance structure as they deliver policies approved by the Scottish Government – usually with no additional funding, guidance, or resources to implement them. Coronavirus has outlined the strength and struggles local government faces. Instead of dictating to Councils, the Scottish Government should fund them properly to allow them to make more localised decisions, based on their own individual objectives.

Take North Lanarkshire for example. My Council has coped reasonably well throughout this difficult time, despite reducing working employees to 25 per cent across the public sector. Council staff have managed to administer grants to thousands of businesses, delivered care packages to those shielding, opened facilities to assist key workers, worked successfully with the local NHS Board, and delivered a phased schools return on the 11th August. However, they have struggled with other service areas such as Early Learning and Childcare, due to the Scottish Government pulling the rug from under them by immediately pausing the programme.

As we are now in phase three of the easing of lockdown, the financial cost implications of Coronavirus are beginning to mount up. Most decisions taken during lockdown were necessary, however, we are beginning to learn of the detrimental impact this could have on services the Council currently provides. In February this year, Councillors voted to make roughly £25 million worth of savings which impacted service areas such as education, social care, and environmental services. Without the additional pressures of Coronavirus, the Council was at breaking point. There are barely any non-statutory services left to cut. Now, with added cost implications of COVID-19, North Lanarkshire Council could face an up to £40m budget gap before the end of the next financial year. This will lead to a revised budget where councillors will need to make more difficult decisions to balance the books.

North Lanarkshire Council is not in a unique position. Many other Councils throughout Scotland will have to reconsider the budget decisions they made in February, to accommodate the additional cost pressures of Coronavirus. The UK Government has delivered for Scottish Councils during this pandemic and included within their package of support was £155 million for councils to keep public services open for those that need them. However, at one point, I did not think councils would receive this funding, as the SNP wanted them to specify how they would spend this money before handing it over.

But councils need more support from the Scottish Government. The Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, has not been forthcoming in highlighting a recovery plan for Councils to replenish their finances and instead, has flippantly told local government to use its reserves before knocking on the Scottish Government’s door for more cash. If Forbes had any understanding of local government finances, she would be aware that Councils do not have a lot of reserves left, due to the austerity inflicted on them by her own Scottish Government. This shows that the SNP do not understand Councils, their structure, or their importance.

The actions of the Scottish Government have left Councils in a precarious position. Their future is uncertain and the handling of finances before and during Coronavirus has left them more exposed than ever. The Scottish Government must stop the overbearing micromanagement of Local Government finances and fund them properly so they can prosper.

Make no doubt about it. Councils provided a lifeline during the Coronavirus pandemic; it is now time for the Scottish Government to return the favour.

Meirion Jenkins: The lack of democratic accountability in Birmingham is worse than ever

18 Aug

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

One good thing that politicians might say about Covid, is that it will provide an excuse for so many failures that have little to do with Covid, or were destined to fail long before the virus appeared. And so it is with the Labour council in Birmingham. With the Birmingham Commonwealth Games now less than two years away, audit committee had classified the athletes’ village as a ‘red risk’. The athletes’ village is the only part of the games that is wholly within the control of Labour and, like most things that Labour’s Birmingham administration handles, it’s another shambles.

The village has now been cancelled. Goodness knows how much this will cost the taxpayers in Birmingham through unrecoverable sunk costs. According to the last business case, which increased the costs by £92 million, £226 million had already been spent by the end of March 2020 on this project. The council chose to fund the village itself with no central government intervention, using a complex finance arrangement and with a view to making a turn on the property development. It was just last December that Labour mysteriously rushed through the purchase of a National Express bus depot, refusing to allow scrutiny or call in of the decision on the grounds that it was urgent, despite paying eight times the budgeted price (£16 million) for the land.

Strangely, this ‘vital’ piece of land was not planned to be needed until the Games and, even then, was only to be used as a depot. It’s now not at all clear whether it will be needed at all. When the Games were taken on at short notice, the Conservative group suggested that the use of student accommodation would represent a lower risk and lower cost option, but the Labour leadership preferred the ‘legacy’ of the athletes’ village. This has now proved to be a disastrous decision and it will probably be student accommodation that meets a large part of the requirement.

The running of the council and lack of democratic accountability is as troubling as ever in Birmingham. Full council and the elected members have now reached the point of being an irrelevance. At the last council meeting (Teams of course), we found ourselves debating a proposal to spend £7,000 on joining a special interest group, whilst the real decisions involving millions of pounds are taken secretly behind closed doors with no scrutiny allowed. Lip service is paid to councillors but we are effectively prevented from doing the job that our residents elected us to do.

We have reached the stage where Labour cabinet members have said in full council “we don’t know what else the officers are hiding from us”. After the meeting when this comment was made and in a separate matter, it emerged that Birmingham had made a decision to pay £1,000 incentives to care homes to take patients regardless of their unknown Covid status. This decision was made as an ‘emergency decision’ and therefore outside of the usual scrutiny process. Senior members of the cabinet are also privately expressing frustration about lack of access to information and lack of consultation on important decisions. Rows break out in audit committee over the Labour administration’s continuing insistence on keeping audit committee in the dark.

I’m also not sure what I find the most remarkable: is it that the Leader of the council is not included in the group of officers that run the council, insofar as the exercise of emergency powers is concerned, or the fact that the Leader is happy to accept this situation? The emergency powers were designed to allow the council to take urgent actions and intended to last just hours or a few days at most. Four months on, we still don’t have the democratically elected leader of the council directly involved in the decisions deriving from the exercise of emergency powers.

I regret that many Labour members (with some notable exceptions) seem content with and motivated only by the status they associate with being a city councillor, but care little for the fact that the role is being diminished to the point of irrelevance. Attempts by me and my colleagues to persuade them to do the right thing and protect the role of the councillor fall on deaf ears. Whilst online meetings can be useful when there is no alternative in a crisis, they are in no way a substitute for proper meetings. Despite this, there is resistance from the Labour administration to re-convening even hybrid meetings, let alone a proper return to full accountability.

Labour Birmingham remains a fully paid up member of the anti-car club. Even when John Lewis decided to close their flagship store in the Bull Ring and we saw press reports about how the city-centre driving tax might have influenced this ( Clean air zone blamed for closure ), Labour stuck dogmatically to their plans to tax hard working motorists for bringing cars into the city. To whatever extent the plan influenced the closure, it is hard to deny that anti-business / anti-car policies will discourage investment. If the city centre is harder and less convenient to access, then this is bound to discourage shoppers and business people from visiting.

Labour seized on the Covid crisis to attempt to introduce a 20mph speed limit as a default throughout Birmingham. Fortunately, they couldn’t do this without the approval of the Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and their request was turned down. I wrote to him to object to Labour’s plans. Ironically, new reports show that one of the areas with worst congestion (and which is densely populated) is Birmingham’s ring road (e.g. Dartmouth Circus ). If Labour are successful in implementing their new tax under the justification of clean air, then they will be moving extra cars and pollution to some of the areas where air pollution is already worst.

Martin Thacker: How we froze the Council Tax in North East Derbyshire

29 Jun

Cllr Martin Thacker is the Leader of North East Derbyshire Council.

In line with our Conservative Manifesto commitment during the 2019 election, North East Derbyshire District Council announced a Council Tax freeze for 2020/21. The intention is to give real help to households in difficult times.

The Council could have opted to increase Council Tax up to a maximum of 1.99 per cent. However, putting financial wellbeing of North East Derbyshire residents at the forefront of decision making, the Council chose to forgo the additional £118,000 that the 1.99 per cent rise would have generated. Instead, the Conservative administration undertook a line by line budget review to identify ongoing savings so a freeze could be managed, without detriment to the quality of frontline services.

We did not foresee the coronavirus pandemic. As with many Councils, COVID-19 is having a detrimental impact on the Council’s 2020/21 budget and cash flow due to lost income from fees and charges. The grants received from Government are hugely welcome and being used to meet budget shortfalls. Unfortunately, funding only goes some way in meeting income losses and those forecast as the pandemic continues.

A further review of approved expenditure budgets for 2020/21 has taken place to help minimise the negative impact. Steps taken to minimise a downturn in income include:

  • Review of approved budgets to identify areas where expenditure can be reduced.
  • Planned restraints on expenditure for the duration of the pandemic and recovery phase to protect the Council’s cash.
  • Moratorium on the Capital Programme in the short term for all but essential works.
  • Moratorium on recruitment for three months, including renewal of temporary contracts and use of agency, unless essential.

Income and expenditure remains under regular review as the situation continues to evolve.

Cash flow remains a concern but is being managed closely to ensure measures put in place are sufficient to protect us through the recovery phase.

The impact of COVID-19 has been wide and far reaching within the Council. It has required a strong leadership response to ensure continued provision of essential services for residents and businesses. It has necessitated management of extensive home working, shielding, and isolation arrangements for staff.

At North East Derbyshire, we immediately set up a Community Support Team. We implemented business continuity arrangements to protect people who need our help and ensure vital services for all local residents. With some staff being redeployed into different jobs overnight, we created a team that has, to date:

  • Telephoned over 7,000 people to offer assistance
  • Delivered over 4,000 medical supplies
  • Provided and delivered food boxes
  • Delivered 700 local newspapers and magazines to those most isolated
  • Contacted over 1,800 businesses to help them access financial support
  • Provided 1,584 grants to businesses totalling almost £18 million
  • Awarded 350 businesses 100 per cent business rates relief
  • Received 20,188 calls and emails from residents and businesses requesting support and advice with Council Tax and Business Rates
  • Had over 32,000 views of the Covid-19 information section on the Council’s website
  • Received £8,265 in donations to support the District’s work for others
  • Launched the #Newskillschallenge to promote and teach British Sign Language
  • Sent regular social media posts reaching an audience of 360,000 views.

As a Council, we led a county-wide project to get homeless people off the streets. We are providing urgent accommodation for some of the most vulnerable (including victims of domestic abuse, those with specific needs, and people who have found themselves without a home for various reasons). We are now endeavouring to ensure this work has a positive and sustainable legacy with the objective that these people do not end up homeless again. We will ensure support and practical advice for them to move on positively with their lives.

Our Environmental Health Team has been central to implementing many of the Government’s social distancing and business requirements. They have been providing support to the local business community by sharing advice and guidance on risk assessments and controls necessary to become ‘COVID secure’, as businesses strive to reopen when permitted. So far, the team has contacted 500 premises and engaged positively with them. We are implementing plans to assist high street businesses in the four towns covered by our District. The Council has launched a shop local campaign too.

We are now moving from the response phase to recovery. The Council has developed plans to bring services back safely and kick start the local economy. We are working to breathe life back into North East Derbyshire once more.

All of this comes at a cost. However, by remaining on top of our current budget position, developing short, medium, and long-term forecasts, and discussing priorities and options regularly, we have been able to make informed decisions which support residents, staff, and businesses through this unprecedented national crisis.

The path of COVID-19 in front of us may be long but as a Council we remain steadfast in our resolve to put the welfare of every resident first and foremost.