Breckland's Response to COVID19
To receive a presentation from the Executive Director of Place and Executive Director of Strategy & Governance.
The Executive Director of Place and Executive Director of Strategy and Governance provided an introductory presentation in relation to the Council’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Executive Director of Strategy and Governance thanked Members and Officers for the way in which they had adapted to new ways of engaging with each other and residents, as well as partners, community groups and volunteers that had all supported each other during the pandemic.
The Executive Director of Place shared the impact of the pandemic in Breckland and throughout Norfolk. During the emergency pandemic, the single priority of the Councils response was to protect life. He was pleased that Officers were able to work remotely within a very quick timescale, and therefore limit the impact of the virus between colleagues, and with the support provided to communities and services minimised the impact that they felt too. All key critical services remained in place albeit managed in a different way which had been a great achievement.
As the Council moved into the recovery phase, it would continue to ensure services provided by the Council would move towards normal service that Members would expect. As a result of the pandemic behaviours had changed, and therefore the way in which services would be delivered and received by residents could change.
The Government had set two priorities for local authorities to deliver throughout the crisis which was through communities and businesses. The first was to support the vulnerable and shielded to ensure that food and medical supplies were provided and the second was to support businesses through the distribution of grants.
A local management team had been in place which would continue during the recovery phase. Whilst the shared management arrangement was still in place, two local management teams had been set up to support both Breckland and South Holland Councils to respond to the crisis. There had been a close relationship between the Senior Management, Leader, Deputy Leader and Executive Members to ensure oversight on decisions that were required to be made, could be done so at pace.
Members were informed that an opportunity had been taken to refurbish the Committee Suite at Elizabeth House, as outlined within the WorkSmart 20:20 programme; the building remained closed and therefore minimum impact would be caused. He reassured Members that the appropriate safety measures were in place at both Council Offices (Elizabeth House and Breckland House) in preparation for when the buildings re-opened.
The Executive Director of Place concluded that during the recovery phase the Council would build back stronger by taking on the learning and development from the last four months to make improvements to the services that had been provided.
Councillor Clarke thanked everyone who had been involved and asked if there would be further detail on the financial impact the Council had encountered. In response, the Executive Director of Place explained that the Finance team were currently analysing the Quarter 1 figures (April, May June) to understand the impact. Whilst the Council had received £1.1m from Central Government as a contribution towards the increased costs, the detailed information was not yet fully clear but would be shared with Members as soon as possible.
Councillor Jermy was pleased that Breckland had been able to support many businesses across the District through the distributions of grants, but felt disappointed that whilst the Government had been quick to announce the availability of grants, the direction on how to distribute those grants had not been clear and proved problematic in the first few weeks that added to the uncertainty. He went onto raise that there had been significant mental health issues, and whilst it was acknowledged that Breckland was not a public health body, he asked if there could be a role that the Council could play in supporting mental health services. He also asked if the Council had liaised with key partner agencies such as the Citizen Advice Bureau who no doubt had been inundated with enquiries as a result of the pandemic. He felt that there had been a huge amount of benefits as a result of the crisis, such as the engagement of people with democracy as a result of live-streaming the committees and asked if there would be a piece of work to quantify those benefits.
The Executive Director of Place informed Members that Breckland had taken the approach to be more methodical in the distribution of grants to ensure it had as much certainty as it could in the early days. It meant that the performance was slightly slower than other counterparts, however, the methodical approach had proved that performance had become stronger in the longer term with the grant distribution.
In respect of Mental Health, Members had previously signed off the Vulnerability Programme in February and as a result of the pandemic it had clearly shown the need to support those that were vulnerable within the District. Executive Members were keen to support the re-purposing of the Vulnerability Programme that would pick up the issues that had been learnt during the crisis. The Executive Director advised that conversations with most key delivery partners had taken place with the aim to understand the impact across Breckland. Whilst there had been a number of opportunities recognised as a result of COVID19, the benefits would be explained as part of the recovery piece of work as services begin to return.
Councillor Morton asked for reassurance with regard to supporting care homes across Breckland should there be a second wave.
It was explained that whilst care homes within Breckland was not the responsibility of the local authority, support would be given through the Norfolk Resilience Forum that had a clear focus with the community health teams.
Councillor Nairn asked what contingencies were in place in the likely event of a second spike. Members heard that whilst assumptions had been made, it was very difficult to predict what would be required. As a result, Members were assured that Officers were ready to react to change the operations should the need arise.
Councillor Turner said she had contacts from the wider community who had learnt of the broad range of services the Council had to offer. Whilst she had received a number of compliments she had also had concerns raised with regard to the systems and processes, not just Breckland but also the partner agencies, and therefore suggested that as part of the recovery phase those processes should be considered. She added that the issues that were important to people prior to the crisis had changed, and as a result it was felt that the Council should look to change its priorities based on what was important to the community. She went onto add the importance of continuing to provide assistance to those Community groups that had ‘sprung up’ as a result of the pandemic providing invaluable support to the community.
The Executive Director agreed that work with the community groups across the District would continue to be built on as that had been one of the key benefits that had come about from the response.
Councillor Martin added his congratulations to how well Breckland had responded and whilst there may have been a slight delay on issuing grants, most comments he had received from businesses had been overwhelmed at how quickly the money had appeared in their bank accounts. He went onto add how many community groups that had been established and had considered becoming part of the Good Neighbour Scheme, and felt Breckland should be part of that, especially if there was a need to work with the community groups again should there be a second spike.
Councillor Martin further asked for a rationale on the emergency revised scheme of delegation of authority which, at the end of March, had passed most decisions over to Officers which was understandable. However, as that was in advance of the publication of COVID-19 Regulations that had since been published by the Government that allowed remote meetings, he asked why the scheme of delegations had not been revised. He had been disappointed that the Council had delayed operating remotely, but was pleased to see that the Committee process had been resumed by holding virtual meetings.
The Executive Director of Place apologised for the delay in respect of the virtual meetings, but assured Members that issues had to be ironed out before public meetings could commence. He was pleased that the systems were now in place for the Council to resume the committee process and with regard to Officer delegations as outlined within the Constitution, the Council was in an emergency situation, and needed to respond quickly to any decisions that had to be made.
Councillor Eagle felt that the Council should be prepared if there was a second lockdown. He praised the Officers who had distributed the discretionary grants but felt that the form that had to be completed was complicated and could be off putting for some. He also felt that there had been a slow response from Environmental Health, particularly if businesses had not dealt with Environmental Health before.
The Executive Director of Place had noted that changes were required to the form to make it user friendly and was pleased that the discretionary rate scheme had been well prescribed. He thanked Councillor Eagle for the feedback regarding Environmental Health and would work with the Team in resolving these issues. He reassured Members that the Council was actively engaged with the Norfolk Public Health Team in managing further outbreaks should they appear.
Councillor Birt felt that the Council had been slow in its response in regard to the commencement of the democratic process. He went onto ask if he could have sight of the recovery documents so that as a Member he could provide input.
The Executive Director of Place felt that the Council had taken a clear approach in reintroducing the democratic processes and decisions were still required on important matters and the right constitutional processes needed to be in place to do that. A presentation would follow later in the meeting on the recovery phase and as and when decisions needed to be made they would follow the democratic process as required.
Councillor Jermy asked if the Council had received guidance on being able to re-allocate the remaining 11% of grants to businesses that were not eligible within the first and second round of grants. It was noted that as soon as clarity had been received information would be shared with Members.