In our Decades in Days series, we talk to the people leading change in local government. They tell us about their work, their place, and the effect of COVID-19 on both. We find out how they are dealing with the incredible demands of a pandemic, and how this moment might be used to shift and shape public services for good. This week, we speak to Sarah Reed, at NLGN member Sunderland City Council.
This crisis has put our transformation programme on steroids. We knew more connectivity and technology would be a game changer for Sunderland, and this has been at the centre of our long-term plans for the city. The impact of Covid-19 has meant we’ve just had to get on and put it into practice.
We’ve been able to dispel a few myths around technology. We’ve shown that services no one believed could work from people’s homes – such as our contact centre – actually can. We’ve learnt that most people have been ready for technology all along.
Sunderland has been impacted by a high number of Covid-related deaths. This is despite our health and social care being some of the best. Also, while nationally more men than women have died, in Sunderland it appears to have impacted more women. This tells you something about the health inequalities we face. We’ve got to keep working to understand these more – and keep pushing to improve health on the ground. This is both through things like anti-smoking and drinking campaigns, and also pushing the Government for fairer funding that reflects our needs.
Communication has been absolutely key, but there’s been a challenge of how we communicate effectively with some of our staff. Especially people like cleaners and parking attendants who might not have had a council email. There’s been a massive push to get them connected that has really worked. We’ve moved to daily briefings for all staff covering things like infection rates, capacity issues and demand. On social and in newsletters we’ve highlighted ‘hidden heroes’ – like refuse collectors going above and beyond.
We have a long tradition of locality working here. The city is divided into five key areas, which each have an integrated locality team. When Covid struck we enhanced our arrangements with locality hub teams – housing providers, social care, GPs, all come together to support people. The next steps will be how to carry on this neighbourhood-level working, as it’s been very positive.
Let’s Talk Sunderland was launched at the start of the year to get residents talking. Discussing what they liked, what they wanted to change, what they wanted to do with their lives here. It’s a new approach to co-production that is helping to build new neighbourhood-level strategies for the whole city.
The role of elected member is evolving. They are doing more to empower communities and residents – doing with people rather than to them. The future will be about elected members supporting the community, not just the community supporting them.
There’s lots of untapped potential in Sunderland. The question for us is how to take it further forward and to tackle some of the huge levels of deprivation we face.
The community spirit here gets under your skin. It’s such a friendly city, with massive open green spaces, beaches, can-do communities, and a lot of innovation. Organisations like Nissan will come to Sunderland and stay. It’s a place that’s easy to become loyal to.