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Council Gives Itself a Clean Bill of Health for Its Coronavirus Response

Published on: 14 Jun, 2020
Updated on: 16 Jun, 2020

by Martin Giles

Guildford councillors have praised the efforts and performance of council staff in the Coronavirus emergency, during the June 2 Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting on decisions taken and plans, and they acknowledged the daunting financial challenge.

Members were reminded that following the establishment of its Covid-19 Group on March 3, Surrey County Council declared an emergency on March 19 and the government moved the country to lockdown on March 23.

The committee was told GBC focused resources on maintaining key services and protecting vulnerable groups in the borough. Many non-essential services closed overnight. The agile response was accelerated thanks to robust new IT systems and equipment through the ongoing future Guildford Transformation Programme to modernise and improve how to meet the needs of residents. No mistakes in the council’s response were identified.

The recently upgraded technology-enabled most office-based staff to be fully working at home within days. The council also played its part at a national level by hosting and providing assistance at the county’s Welfare Hub for shielded residents at Spectrum Leisure Centre.

James Whiteman

Managing director James Whiteman led the presentation, which detailed how:

  • A new community helpline was set up in days and has now made more than 15,500 telephone calls to the most vulnerable residents, as well as receiving 3,400-plus calls;
  • Nearly 1,600 food parcels and 13,500 meals on wheels have been delivered;
  • 56 homeless people were placed in accommodation and 46,000 information leaflets were hand-delivered to households;
  • 87 council staff were redeployed to welfare hubs and services;
  • 1,384 grants had been made to local businesses, totalling £18,570,000; and
  • 984 properties were granted a business rate holiday, totalling £40 million.

Mr Whiteman said adversity staff took great pride in serving Guildford’s residents and morale was kept up by sharing lockdown stories and photos with each other via the staff intranet. Publicly, frontline staff were celebrated on corporate social media channels and in the local media.

Turning to the emergency housing of the originally homeless or rough sleeping many of whom were vulnerable to infection, the meeting was told, 32 of the 56 in temporary accommodation have since been rehoused more permanently. Several hotels used for temporary accommodation have agreed to continue to provide rooms, and the new 24-hour Number Five homeless hub, on York Road, has provided additional capacity.

The council is also examining longer-term solutions for more at-risk individuals. Some funding from the council’s three-year Rough Sleeper Initiative may be brought forward to help ensure no rough sleepers are left without accommodation in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The only complaint received had been from a resident who said a food box had not arrived. A neighbour was suspected of taking it. No mention was made of the controversial decision to close GBC’s country car parks.

The financial impact of the crisis on the council was discussed at some length.

Claire Morris

Resources director Claire Morris told councillors:

  • To quantify the full financial impact of the crisis on the council’s finances was too early, including how normal revenue streams such as car parking will be affected;
  • When, or even if, the Spectrum Leisure Centre will be able to reopen is uncertain;
  • There were no material proposals to save money by extending service provision-sharing with other authorities but it could not be ruled out;
  • Financial reserves will need to be replenished but by how much is not yet known;
  • The financing of planned major projects will have to be reviewed;
  • The government had given GBC £21 million to distribute as business grants;
  • Watts Gallery had received £50k; and
  • An additional GBC grant scheme was not affordable.

Cllr Joss Bigmore

Cllr Joss Bigmore (R4GV, Christchurch) said financial planning was very difficult because no one knows how soon the economy would bounce back or whether there would be a second wave of Covid infection.

But borrowing being very cheap, some key projects should be kept going, he added: “For the economy to recover we need a busy high street, for that we need people feeling safe and that seems a bit of a long way off at the moment.

“As we move through the health recovery and into the economic recovery we need to utilise the community spirit to support the local economy.”

Council leader Caroline Reeves (Lib Dem, Friary & St Nicolas), said: “We can’t promise anything to anybody until things become more certain, even for the voluntary sector whose fund-raising has been badly affected.”

Cllr Caroline Reeves

But she joined O&S committee chairman Paul Spooner (Con, Ash South & Tongham) and other councillors to praise officers for their hard work and dedication since March.

She said: “I am so proud of how officers responded so swiftly from a standing start to maintain our essential services and provide new ways to support and collaborate to care for our residents during the outbreak. My sincere thanks goes out to them all.

“The pandemic has brought renewed respect and value for our public services. We’ve been overwhelmed with the community spirit shown throughout Guildford and the incredible work of so many existing and new voluntary groups and it will be this sense of altruism that will be vitally important as we begin to look toward to recovery.”

Cllr Paul Spooner

Cllr Spooner said: “I’d like to thank all staff for their incredible efforts over the past few months. I am pleased to confirm that after a healthy debate and discussion the committee was very supportive that the right actions have been taken in our response so far. As a council, we are committed to improving our decision-making process through the Overview and Scrutiny system and being as transparent as possible.

“Understanding how we have been meeting the needs of our residents, in particular those at risk and vulnerable, together with the multi-million-pound financial impact the crisis will have on the council, are key examples of how we must continue to challenge our judgements and recommendations from specialist officers and elected councillors to ensure we are making the right choices in these uncertain and challenging times.”

The Overview and Scrutiny Committee examines decisions by the council’s Executive or lead councillors. It can undertake reviews and in-depth investigations to provide advice and recommendations which can contribute to policy development. It also reviews council services to ensure customer satisfaction and value for money.

The Covid-19 will remain on the committee’s agenda for its next meeting on July 7.

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Responses to Council Gives Itself a Clean Bill of Health for Its Coronavirus Response

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    June 15, 2020 at 11:16 am

    The only contact I’ve had with GBC was rubbish.

    Well to be more accurate, rubbish collection. I can only say that their street cleaning service was exemplary with tipped rubbish cleaned up in 1 hr 55 minutes from the report to being cleared. A five-star service.

  2. Mike Murphy Reply

    June 17, 2020 at 10:26 pm

    Cllr Spooner in charge of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee which aims for transparency and checks on value for money? This must be some sort of joke it’s like putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.

    Does anyone remember the failed Guildford market, or the expensive trip to China for no worthwhile reason?

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