Agenda item

Covid-19 update (Agenda item 7)

Update by Councillor Sam Chapman-Allen, Leader of the Council and Gold Command.


The Leader presented the report.


The report provided a high level outline of the work undertaken to date in responding to the threat posed by the outbreak of COVID 19.  It also set out on-going work being undertaken to ensure that all possible steps were being taken to prepare the Council and the District for the challenges in the coming weeks and months.


The Leader praised the staff and Members of this authority for a fantastic effort to keep the Council’s critical services running throughout the crisis; whilst supporting vulnerable residents and businesses in new and innovative ways.


The Leader also took the opportunity to thank Members for their support at this time and hoped that he had kept them fully abreast of developments through his regular briefings. 


The Government had tasked local authorities with two core objectives during the emergency response phase.  One had been to support vulnerable and shielded people within the community by ensuring that they had food and medicine supplies.  The second had been to support businesses through the distribution of Business Rate Support and grants distribution.


A COVID 19 Operational Recovery Plan was currently being developed. The Plan would focus on how the Council would recover as an organisation, how it reintroduced services, supported its staff and Members, learning from the experience of dealing with COVID 19, benefited from its new community and business links, and more fundamentally how it ensured that residents could access the services they needed. 


The Leader finished by thanking every single member of staff for their professionalism and dedication throughout Covid-19.  To all the Members of the Council for their patience, understanding and the phenomenal champion work that had been undertaken within their Wards, the District and the County; and to every other volunteer, resident and business in Norfolk and Breckland who had gone out to support those in need and those who had continued to do so.


 Members were invited to ask questions.


Councillor Paul Hewett, the Executive Member for Contracts & Assets mentioned the distribution of grants and asked the Leader if he would pass on his thanks to the Officers, in particular for the distribution of grants to the various community groups within the District and certainly within his Ward in Shipdham, Cranworth and Scarning who otherwise would have really struggled.  This grant funding had been an absolute lifeline and he felt that it was through the swift and diligent, effective distribution of grant monies to those organisations that this essential community work could continue. 


The Leader echoed the above comments.  It had been a very difficult time for the Council as it had to work at pace to distribute those grants following guidance and legislation from Government and he hoped that this funding had made a little difference to those organisations/businesses across the District.  The next phase of funding would now be launched, a further payment of £1.5m for those businesses/organisations that had not been eligible in the first tranche and he asked every business to engage with the Council regardless of size, turnover, or the number of employees, so that details could be taken to support them in the coming months and years ahead.


Councillor Kiddell asked the Leader if it would be possible for Breckland Council to help some of the charitable organisations within the Breckland Wards.  She knew of several in Watton, including the Watton Sports Centre that had not qualified for the earlier grant funding.  In response the Leader advised that the tranche 2 funding, under the guidance, did allow for some charitable support with any residual monies that remained.  He would be more than happy to put together a briefing note about some of the charity funding that had been announced from Central Government.  He was also aware that Sports England had ring-fenced some funding for sports clubs and charities that fell into that criteria and he would be happy to share this information with Members after the meeting.


Councillor Morton thanked the Leader and the Officers for all their hard work.  He asked the Leader how the Council was going to develop, away from the lock down, with the likelihood of a second peak occurring and how the Council would keep that to a minimum. 


In relation to the lock down, the Leader advised as long as everyone followed the guidance from Government about social distancing and taking responsibility through the track and trace system that had been launched the previous week, his hope was that the ‘R’ rate would continue to remain as low as practically possible.  As for the District, the Council would do everything to ensure that its High Streets and Market Towns were safe places for people to operate.  This had been divided into two parts, the first was the physical infrastructure such as making sure that the furniture, signage were right in the High Streets whilst also making sure that the Environmental Health Officers were working with the shopkeepers and retail owners to ensure that they were doing everything that they could to protect, not just themselves and their employees, but also any residents that wished to support and use those premises.  The Council would continue to take its lead from Public Health Norfolk and wider Central Government and he believed that people in Breckland and Norfolk, cared passionately about protecting themselves and each other and were adhering to the guidance.


Councillor Atterwill echoed the comments that Councillor Hewett had made about the financial assistance for local businesses and organisations which he felt had worked extremely well.  He asked for his thanks to be passed onto all Officers concerned.  In relation to Covid-19 he had two questions to ask. The first was in respect of opening up the town centres and he asked the Leader if he could confirm that those Councillors representing the five market towns had been consulted on this matter.  Secondly, he asked if it could be confirmed how much financial assistance had been provided during this crisis for the food banks in the Breckland District. 


In response, the Leader advised that £10k had been shared 50/50 with the Dereham and Thetford food banks and further funding had been allocated for other food banks within the District if and when required.  However, due to some technicalities those individuals had not been able to draw down this further funding but open dialogue had taken place with those businesses and those food banks stating that at any point they required help the Council would try and assist.


In respect of the High Streets, the Leader advised that no consultation had taken place directly with the relevant Ward Members to date.  The initial plan had been put together very quickly following the Prime Minister’s announcement.  On-street visits had then been undertaken with Breckland and County Highway Officers but the important point to note was that this would be a moving feast and nothing put in place would be permanent.  He fully expected that over the coming weeks when this was all put in place that the High Streets would not be perfect and everyone would have to work collectively with the Town Councils, the businesses in the High Streets, Ward Members, County Divisional Members and Officers at both District and County level to get the best fit for each market town.  Over the coming days the situation would change and the Council would ensure everything was done to make sure that residents felt safe in the High Street through the physical furniture and the structure that had been put in place; likewise, the Council was working with businesses at pace to establish if they wanted to open and that it was safe to do so.


As a follow up question, Councillor Atterwill asked the Leader again if there had been any dialogue with the Town Councils.  He completely understood what the Leader had said about speed but having been in lock down for between 10 and 11 weeks, there had been enough time to get everyone involved in this and the Town Councils should have been consulted as most would probably have some good ideas about how their town centres should look and how they could assist.  The Leader pointed out that the Town Councils had been consulted but could not comment as to whether the dialogue had been at the right time in the given time frame.


Councillor Jermy, the Leader of the Labour Group shared the Leader’s praise and thanks for all staff and Members who had worked above and beyond over the last few months which should be recognised.  He was aware that there had been a number of businesses across the District that had, for whatever reason, not been able to access the business grants and he had been pleased to note in the report that 87% of businesses had been issued with grants which was a credit to the Team who had been working on this. However, in respect of the monies remaining, given the amount of time that had passed and the effort that had gone into promoting it, he wanted to know at what point that funding would no longer be available and at what point that remaining money might be re-deployed into the discretionary fund as acknowledged in the report.  This was a lifeline for some businesses and he felt that perhaps this would be an opportunity to re-deploy that funding.  The other point he wished to raise was in respect of any fraudulent claims and how the Council would be dealing with such matters, if any.  Finally on the hardship fund, a figure of £50k had been mentioned and he asked if more detail could be provided and how this funding could be accessed as this funding, in his opinion, could be a crucial lifeline for a number of residents and organisations. 


In response, the Leader assured Members that further details would be provided in respect of the National Hardship Fund.  The mechanics of that to be drawn down was for individuals to either contact the Council direct or via Ward Members to contact the Community Hub Lead for their locality.  It was noted that, to date a portion of the Hardship funding had been spent on white goods provision for someone whose cooking appliance had broken and did not have the money to purchase another and on food vouchers.  The variance of this hardship fund was vast and not all of that funding had been spent but did not mean that it was not needed.  The funding had been ring-fenced and would remain until such time it was deemed to re-allocate that money to other areas within the Council. 


In relation to any fraudulent claims, the Leader explained that the Council had to undertake physical checks on every applicant to ensure that fraudulent claims were not coming forward that caused, what was felt by others, to slow down the process. However, 87% of the original funding allocation already granted was, in his opinion, a really impressive number and as the Council moved forward there would be further work done.  The Government guidance provided had set out a clear course of action for Councils in respect of those individuals who had committed fraudulent claims. 


In respect of the underspend from Tranche 1 and the residual amount that remained, Norfolk as a whole was collectively lobbying Government to allow authorities to retain that money within the District and the County to support businesses moving forward.  At this stage, the Government had not, as yet, made a clear position statement as to what that residual money could be spent on. 


Councillor Birt, the Leader of the Green Party hoped that the Leader would join him in thanking the many Breckland residents who had stepped up to help their neighbours, and other residents in their local communities during this crisis.  Those people should be thanked for grocery shopping, picking up prescriptions and for providing cash for those people without internet banking facilities.  There had been a myriad of tasks that had happened in the communities and it should be highlighted that it had been the communities that had worked so well.  He was concerned; however, that the documentation presented was, in his opinion, a rather sycophantic statement and referred to the poster on page 18 of the agenda pack.  He felt that it had not reflected the huge debt that the Council owed to its residents.  The bins had still been collected but had the refuse collectors been thanked.  He agreed that the Council had done ‘ok’ in respect of the business support, but it seemed that the message coming out from this poster was that it had been Breckland Council handing the monies out when in reality it had been an implementation of a national policy.  Overall, from what he had seen locally, he felt that the Council’s response had been somewhat mediocre and it had forgotten about its residents.  Another area in which the Council had badly fallen down was in respect of scrutiny.  In his opinion, it looked like Covid-19 had been an excuse for the Council to remove scrutiny altogether. 


In response, the Leader thanked Councillor Birt for his positive accolades to all the hardworking members of the community and to the waste services teams who had been putting their lives at risk.  Through the positive media campaign that the Council had been running it had praised its waste contractor and he had been immensely humbled by the praise and support of all residents across the District and he hoped that his opening remarks were clear that it had not just been about Breckland Council.  He had praised the work of volunteers and to those who had not officially volunteered but to anyone who had gone out of their door to help someone doing grocery shopping or providing cash support.  He did not agree with Councillor Birt that the Council was patting itself on the back, his opening remarks had been heartfelt and the residents that he had spoken to were absolutely supportive of what everyone in the District and across the country as a whole had done. 


In relation to the scrutiny function, Councillor Birt was informed that scrutiny had not at all been diluted, the constitutional process for call-ins had remained and at any point where a delegation had been made the ability to call it in was still there.  Only on two occasions had that right been waived following the Chairman of Scrutiny’s authorisation under his emergency powers.  He stressed to Councillor Birt that this was not the time to dwell on what had occurred, this would take place over the coming weeks and months as the Council moved forward.  Today was to set a very clear scene of where the Council had been and what the future looked like when it stepped up to the recovery stage and what its continued priorities were going to be.  In relation to support, Breckland Council was in comparison to many others, a very small local authority and all had been tasked with two very clear objectives from Government - to support those most vulnerable and to support businesses through the grants scheme.  The Leader felt that the Council had pivoted overnight, not just by remote working and not just by delivering critical services but by supporting the vulnerable and the businesses in the District. Over 50 Council Officers had been re-deployed into new areas and in the coming days and weeks there would be ample opportunity for Councillor Birt and all Members of the Council to scrutinise practices, to ensure that Breckland Council was fit for purpose and any lessons that had been learnt from Covid-19. 


Councillor Borrett also congratulated the Leader on the format of this Cabinet meeting and to the Team that had put it together.  He commented on what Councillor Birt had said and was very disappointed with his tone.  He believed that Councillor Birt had missed the point about what had been achieved and had been very disappointed by his comment that Breckland’s response had been mediocre given the huge amount of hard work that the Officers and residents of Breckland had put together during this emergency.  To actually deliver an incredible service in these hugely challenging and difficult times, and the very fact that the Council had managed to get most of the staff working remotely, in his opinion, was a massive effort by all concerned and he had been very impressed with the response that Breckland had managed and had provided.   To that end, Councillor Borrett thanked the Leader and all the staff and everyone who had helped the Council through these difficult times which he felt had been a great achievement.


The Leader thanked Councillor Borrett for his comments.


The report was noted.

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