Like many I have been heartened by much of the response during this pandemic. I have stood with my neighbours every Thursday and clapped for our NHS, care workers and other key workers, many of whom are on the front line and taking great risks with their own lives to care for those who are sick.

For me personally, the most visible part of this crisis has been around the wider social and economic impacts of the current lockdown.  Of course the lockdown is necessary to reduce the flow of this virus and save lives, but I recognise that for many the effects are hard felt.  Some people were already struggling with one or more problems around housing, debt, finding/keeping work, their mental health or family breakdown.  With regard to these vulnerabilities, I was already involved in running and developing innovative practices around prevention (written about here),  acting early when (and before) problems arise.  Whilst this virus has however revealed new vulnerabilities - in relation to age, a lack of family or support network - it has also compounded the problems of the already vulnerable; this pandemic is especially hard for them.

It is for these reasons that the role of local government has been responding (alongside the voluntary sector and others) up and down the country.  I however want to pay attention to the role of district and borough councils during this crisis, because it is these councils that are so much more local and therefore relevant to communities and places in leading these efforts.

District councils are smaller and therefore closer to our places and partners, enabling strong relationships to grow and thrive.  From day one, my councils - Adur and Worthing (which are separate councils but have joint working arrangements) saw our roles as a systems leader, mobilising our place effort and ensuring that those needing help can navigate support easily.  Our local connection to our place and our partners plays an important role in our ability to do this.

Within days of this crisis unfolding we brought together colleagues from our communities teams and across our councils and our local partners to respond.  Dividing up our 170,000 population into 9 neighbourhoods, we created 9 small teams and mobilised a mass volunteering effort, reaching out to local partners and people; over 500 volunteers responded.

We are also lucky to have a digital team that has in-house expertise and has been using self-build MatSoft tech.  They were able to work alongside our communities team to create a beautifully simple community support platform, enabling people to reach out to us for help and support.  We’ve had around 1,500 people reach out for help, with an average of 1.6 service requests each.  And this is important, as the tech is providing good data that is continually informing and adapting our approach.

Collectively we created some critical work streams to help people:

  • help with food (access to shopping or emergency food parcels, establishing our own food depot, working with food banks),
  • help with prescriptions (working with our NHS),
  • support with mental health (with Mind),
  • help with money (Citizens Advice and our own Money Mentors),
  • someone to talk to (befriending charities),
  • digital access support,
  • Help with safety/scams.  

The role of our wider partners from across the charity, housing, NHS and business sectors has been pivotal.

One of the most important parts of our efforts has been about mobilising volunteers. Our volunteering platform is beautifully simple, easy to use and provides good data.  We are working hard to ensure volunteers are well onboarded and mobilised across all our neighbourhoods.  We have written the policy behind the action for our volunteers, building good communication and using our data to inform how we use our volunteers most effectively (using people locally).

Like many areas our places are massively supported with the efforts of the many mutual aid groups that sprung up in the first days of this crisis.  We are taking the time to connect with these groups in our places, recognising their independence and mutuality, but reaching out to form local relationships and working alongside to support where it’s wanted and might help (but not getting in the way).  The most important guiding principle is to ensure that no-one gets missed during this crisis.

Some five weeks into these efforts, we are using the data from our systems to inform and adapt our approach, using it to understand the need, its scale and early trends and to match our resources locally and efficiently.  Of our 1,500 cases, we have closed around 530 with the rest remaining live for now.  Our main requests are around accessing food, with many being unable to go out and shop for themselves.  In response we have quickly put together good information to enable people to self help and access local businesses that had repurposed their food offer to deliveries - a win win for people and local businesses.  Others have struggled with access to money and for these we have developed emergency food parcels that we either sell for £15 (for those that can afford it) or provide it for free if they can’t.  

Many of those coming through need more than one kind of support, hence the average of 1.6 services.  Where we can close cases we do, but where someone needs ongoing support we are keeping people open on our system.  One of the key support needs we are flagging is someone to talk to and we have set up good connections into existing charities that can provide this. However most of these focus on older people and so we are currently looking at the role of our volunteers to support those of working age, which will also help in the future post this crisis in terms of creating greater mutuality.  It’s been especially interesting when we overlay where volunteers and those seeking help live - in some cases this has been people living next door to each other!

And whilst all of this has been going on, our housing teams have been working tenaciously with our most vulnerable people, ensuring that those that have been rough sleeping are found accommodation and the support they need.  One of our housing leads has sourced a local hotel to accommodate people and set up arrangements for cooked meals and arrangements for distancing and cleaning.  Our teams are however doing much more to help support them through these times including sourcing donations of clothes and activities and support for their mental health and substance misuse.

When I think about what we have achieved within a matter of weeks, I especially reflect upon three points:

  1. I always knew it, but size matters. Responding well means responding locally. The speed of this crisis has required strong relationships and trust.  It’s district councils that are local enough and ideally placed to mobilise others and hold relationships with local groups.  Move beyond this scale and it becomes too big to truly connect in meaningful ways.
  2. The dedication, tenacity and ethical moral compass has provided wings for us during this crisis.  I’m not saying this doesn’t exist anywhere else, of course it does. However the closeness of us to our local places (and many of us live locally) does, I believe, add to the spirit of our councils and our mantra of doing the right thing.  It’s been incredible to witness the unfailing desire of our staff to pitch in and sort the detail out afterwards, in order to help people.  This has been truly uplifting and evident also within our local partners and volunteers.
  1. Our scale lends itself to our agility and flexibility to respond to this crisis.  I have been describing this as something akin to aim, fire, and design, or of course developing services at lightning speed and then retrofitting the policy from behind.  I do believe that this has been easier as a district.  Of course it’s part of our mindset and approach, but our size lends itself to our agility during this crisis  

When I slow down for a moment, it feels like this has all been an evolving revolution in the way we work, in ways that I could never have imagined a few months ago.  On the one hand, our role within our place and the trust we have with our partners and communities has enabled us to do this work well.  

However it has made me think about the bigger questions around the role of local government and the new found visibility to our communities.  We provide some excellent services - some which people know about (emptying the bins and looking after our parks to name a few) but we play such different roles in our communities, many of which go under the radar to the majority, until such a crisis hits.   It is during these times that people turn to local government.  

The role of district councils is even more important given the closeness to communities.  All of this makes me extra proud to work for local government and especially two district councils.  I know there are others all over the county doing the same and I wanted to shout out for all of those who are doing such great work.