Over the last few days, I have been taking soundings from Conservative council leaders about how their local authorities are coping during the coronavirus pandemic. Most of these conversations took place before the announcement of a second national lockdown. I sought to discover the feelings of those council leaders about how central Government has been responding. In order to enable them to respond candidly, I agreed not to name those I spoke to. But the sample did include leaders of county, district and unitary authorities from different parts of the country.
How are the councils coping?
Perhaps surprisingly all those I spoke to were coping well with the financial pressures. Overall they felt the extra funding from the Government had been reasonable. While they were able to keep their council budgets under control and maintain services, some were gloomy about the prospects for high street shops and other small businesses.
Reserves have helped ease temporary pressure on Council budgets:
“I said to the finance officers that we should use some of our reserves. They resisted saying they wanted to save them ‘for a rainy day.’ But I politely pointed out that we are responding to a pandemic. If this isn’t a ‘rainy day’, what is?”
Another council leader said his authority had avoided using reserves but would need to do so if there was a second national lockdown. Revenues from car parks and leisure centres fizzled out during the full lockdown and have only partly returned. There is also the indirect cost of councils from a loss of investment income – which the Government is not compensating for.
A northern county council leader said:
“The big challenge for us has been school transport in rural areas with the social distancing rules. It has really pushed up costs. Funding has been skewed towards deprivation. That means some London boroughs have had more extra money than we have. But our challenges are much greater. That is not to claim that we aren’t managing to meet those challenges. We are.”
In a more positive vein, some pointed to how the crisis had allowed some savings and service improvements. One county council leader from the south of England told me:
“We have saved £400,000 in utility bills from our buildings being empty. We will certainly be looking at reducing our office space in the future – selling buildings or renting out a floor. More home working in future will be popular with our staff. Often they will have work that doesn’t need to be done nine to five. Some with young children might prefer to do it when the children have gone to bed. Why not? I expect sickness levels will go down. There won’t be money for missing work for ‘duvet days.’ That will save costs on agency staff.”
“I think we will do more meetings on zoom even once the crisis is over. But I have spent days when I’ve been staring at a screen for hours on end and that doesn’t improve my decision making or that of my chief executive. Sometimes being able to look out of a window helps you to think. So it’s a balance. Probably there will be hybrid meetings where some councillors and council officers will be in the room and others will join online.
“Some services have improved. For example, registrations of births, deaths and marriages. There used to be a requirement to do these in person. It can now be done over the phone which often people prefer. It would make sense for that change to be permanent.”
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government performance?
The feedback I gathered was broadly favourable.
One unitary authority leader said of the Secretary of State:
“Robert Jenrick is not only coping with the coronavirus pressures but just as important is keeping everything else going. Pressing on with planning reforms. He can walk and chew gum.”
A northern county council leader said:
“The MHCLG Ministers have been good. There is a Whatsapp group for Ministers and council leaders that works well. It gives us a chance to vent our spleen.”
A southern district council leader agrees adding:
“I would give them eight of ten. Some of the expectation management was poor. The ‘whatever it takes…’ stuff. But I do think they listen. That doesn’t mean we can realistically have everything we want. Some of my colleagues muddle that up. They do listen – that doesn’t mean we get all that we ask for.”
One leader of a northern district council felt the moves to prevent landlords evicting tenants was “storing up trouble” which would increase pressure on his housing department:
“If landlords are unable to have the confidence that they can evict if they need to that will drive them out of the market. Tenants who know they won’t be evicted will be more tempted to run up rent arrears – and so more likely to end up thrown out eventually. It’s a time bomb really. We will end up with a lot of evictions combined with a greater shortage of accommodation to place people looking for help.”
How has the Government in general performed?
When it came to a broader verdict on the Government there was stronger criticism. There was criticism over the “mishandling” of free school meals. Also of “high handed centralisation” and “lack of transparency” from the Department of Health over test and trace. Everyone I spoke to indicated they would oppose a second national lockdown (though, as noted above, most of them were contacted before the announcement that it would be taking place). A majority – though not all – were concerned that there were already too many restrictions.
One district council leader in a “tier two” area felt the restrictions were justified but would not back them going further:
“I think the Government has called as best they could. We are trying to back enforcement of the restrictions to give them time to work – although realistically it’s more about persuasion than enforcement. People have to be patient. But a national ‘circuit break’ does not seem to me to be realistic. How would we get out of it? It would be Hotel California.”
But most others felt the restrictions had already gone too far. One commented:
“I would resist being moved to Tier Two. It would destroy our hospitality industry. Who wants to eat out with just their family? Ludicrous. Where is the evidence that moving from Tier One to Tier Two actually saves lives? I haven’t seen any. So the Government would have to come up with something pretty convincing.”
Another council leader adds:
“The 10pm rule on pubs closing doesn’t make any sense. I don’t even attempt to defend it. The Government’s approach should be to only impose extra restrictions if the councils agree. In Essex, they asked for them. So fair enough. My concern is that imposing more and more local lockdowns sort of creeps into a national one.”
The issue of free school meals in the holidays was regarded as a “fiasco”. Again it was felt this could have been averted if greater faith in localism had been shown. The Government could have provided hardship funds for feeding children with discretion on how councils spent it. Several indignant complaints were made. Though often this was about the political and PR aspect. Few believed that children were genuinely being left to go hungry without getting offers of help. “The community response has meant a lot of food has been left uncollected,” one council leader told me.
Another swipe was taken at the Department of Transport for restrictions on how it’s “active travel fund” can be spent. “A complete nightmare,” I was told. “Very skewed towards urban areas and lots of perverse rules that make it hard to spend the money effectively.”
Perhaps one final comment provides a conclusion:
“I was rather in the middle of the lockdown debate. Certainly, I was sympathetic towards the Government about how difficult the decisions are. I still am to some extent. But if mistakes are made then it is good to learn from them rather than keep pressing on with something that is not working. There is a limit to how long people can be expected to comply with an approach that just causes difficulties without any clear benefits.”