As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, we asked leaders in local government how their councils are coping with the challenges of this crisis. Here are the three things we’ve learned from our latest Leadership Index survey:
- Councils have been responding to COVID-19 but they need more funding from the Government.
- Their confidence levels in the economy have plummeted.
Council chiefs’ confidence levels in the local economy have dropped dramatically across all key indicators. Level of optimism in the local business environment fell most, dropping by 36 per cent to its lowest level of 40/100. Confidence on whether there are now sufficient employment opportunities in their area has also dropped by 15 per cent.
Amidst this overall decline in confidence, councils are now also faced with an additional funding uncertainty. By failing to confirm whether money councils already spent on PPE and ‘shielding’ services would be reimbursed, the government appears to be rowing back on their initial assurance that councils would be backed financially to do ‘whatever it takes’ to respond to the crisis.
- Community cohesion and trust have reached a new high, as councils and community groups step up collaboration.
On the plus side, for the first time since the start of the Leadership Index, community cohesion and trust have exceeded 70/100, continuing the upward trend from the last quarter. Amidst the enormous challenges, there has also been a flourishing of community volunteering, with an overwhelming majority of council chiefs (96 per cent) saying that the contribution of community groups in their councils’ COVID-19 efforts has been ‘significant’ or ‘very significant’.
Councils play a key role in coordinating local responses, as one respondent explained, they “established local support mechanisms before the Government came up with its plans for ‘shielded’ residents and launched its call for NHS volunteers”. They have shown remarkable resilience and agility during this pandemic, with one respondent saying they have had to “completely change the way they work” in a matter of days and weeks.
Some respondents felt this local collaboration was being hampered by the response of central Government. Several council heads pointed to the building and subsequent underutilisation of national schemes, as one respondent put it:
“Local gov is geared to deliver local services, so national government suddenly creating national delivery structures from scratch is just wasting time and probably money.”
Another called on government to: “genuinely work with councils and combined authorities and other partners to create locally-led solutions to community support and delivery”.
Councils have been addressing both the immediate and longer-term challenges of this pandemic. In the immediate term, they have focused on the most urgent needs; almost half of councils (48 per cent) have set up a community support hub to help the most vulnerable in society, and 22 per cent are providing support to businesses and VCS. At the same time, many councils are already looking beyond the pandemic, developing recovery plans (42 per cent), reshaping their finances (17 per cent), while also ensuring they can provide ongoing support to local businesses (15 per cent).
But councils need more funding from the Government if this is to be sustainable. Over three quarters of council chiefs (78 per cent) have called for more funding. The decade of austerity has already chipped away council reserves leaving little for emergency situations such as the current crisis. The Government’s £3.2 billion funding is far from the £10 billion that councils are expected to need to make up not only for additional COVID-19 related spending, but also lost income due to the closures of local services, and further reductions in business rates and council tax.
The full report can be found here.
The press release can be found here.