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Cllr Izzi Seccombe is the Leader of Warwickshire County Council and the Leader of the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association.
Local government has been at the forefront of the unprecedented national response to the Coronavirus pandemic, and I am proud that Conservative councils have been leading the way in supporting those in our communities who most need our assistance.
Across the country, our councils have been working tirelessly to get rough sleepers off the streets, support shielding programmes, look after vulnerable children and adults, and support care workers whilst also maintaining the core services that all of our residents continue to rely on. For example, my own authority, working in partnership with our district and borough councils, has supported shielded residents across Warwickshire by delivering over 5,000 packages of food and essential household goods. Working closely with voluntary and community services, we have also delivered wider support to those who are vulnerable but not shielding, including virtual library services, well-being and mental health support, and advice on homelessness, housing and financial vulnerability.
Similarly, in Essex the county council is working very closely with its district, borough, and city council colleagues to ensure that Operation Shield is as effective as possible. More than 4,000 people have signed up to the countywide volunteering scheme, with many helping to distribute government food parcels from a central depot that was put into operation once the lockdown started. The council’s 30-year relationship with Jiangsu Province in China has also allowed it to obtain extra supplies of vital PPE equipment and to assist other local authorities.
In South Norfolk, the district council has redeployed all of its leisure staff to the humanitarian effort, resulting in them undertaking new roles such as helping those vulnerable residents who need help with shopping or prescriptions. Meanwhile, the council’s fitness instructors have been redeployed to its refuse collection teams, thus helping to ensure that this core service has been fully maintained for all local residents throughout the crisis. In Leicestershire, the county council has established a £1 million fund to help voluntary, community, and social enterprise organisations whose work supporting vulnerable people across the county would otherwise suffer due to their inability to fundraise during the crisis. The fund was launched at the beginning of April, with the first set of grants (which are limited to a maximum of £25,000 per organisation) totalling just over £500,000. Such was the popularity of the scheme that the fund was increased to £1.5 million. To date, 232 organisations from across the county have made bids totalling over £3 million. Meanwhile, in Staffordshire, the county council has already overseen the distribution of 1000 food deliveries to vulnerable residents who do not have any support network, and it is planning to deliver up to 20,000 parcels over a twelve week period.
As part of this process, the council takes bulk consignments of essential supplies and repackages them for delivery to individual households. The packing is done by volunteers, council staff transferred from other departments – some of the 750 in total who have volunteered to switch jobs to support critical roles – and catering teams from its school meals provider. Once a delivery has been organised, recipients are also then put in touch with local voluntary organisations who are able to offer them further support.
Of course, these initiatives and the many thousands of others around the country, have resulted in councils incurring significant additional expenditure. I was therefore delighted when our Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, recently announced that the Government was providing an additional £1.6 billion to local government to help it deal with the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
I would like to thank Robert and his MHCLG Ministerial Team, as well as their colleagues at the Treasury, for listening to our concerns about the financial impact that Coronavirus has had on councils and responding in such a positive manner. Indeed, this latest funding announcement means that local government has now received over £3.2 billion in additional funding since the Coronavirus crisis began, and it came shortly after the equally welcome news that councils will also be able to defer £2.6 billion in business rates payments to central government.
Robert has also made a number of other important announcements that have provided much needed clarity for councillors and councils at this difficult time, including the very helpful guidance from MHCLG in relation to holding council meetings remotely. Councils have responded positively to this guidance and adapted flexibly to the new circumstances. To give just one example, South Norfolk District Council is keeping its planning function going with a smaller planning committee comprised of five members meeting online fortnightly, replacing the previous nine member committee which used to meet monthly.
I also very much appreciated the fact that Robert recently took the time to write to councils to specifically thank them for their response to the pandemic and to acknowledge our workers as the ‘unsung heroes’ of the crisis. It is fitting that the fantastic contribution of our dedicated council workers has been officially recognised alongside their colleagues in the NHS and other professions, and I know that they will continue to play an absolutely vital role in supporting and protecting the most vulnerable members of our society in the coming weeks and months.
I know that many of our councillors are regular Conservative Home readers, so I would also like to take this opportunity to say a big ‘thank you’ on behalf of the LGA Conservative Group for all that you are doing for your communities at this very difficult time.
I hope that you, along with all Conservative Home readers, are keeping safe and managing to adapt to what has fast become the ‘new normal.’
We are living in unprecedented times, but as Her Majesty said in her recent broadcast to the nation, we will succeed in the fight against Coronavirus and we will meet again.