Local government enters the lives of most people in brief, but important moments: bin collections, street cleaning, dropping off their children at school. Most of what local government does is hidden away behind contracted-out amenities such as sports centres, or in the support provided to the most vulnerable through social services, housing, and even food inspections.
Yet local government is on the frontline of the response to the coronavirus. Councils are coordinating action at the local level, reacting to events, all the while maintaining core services like bin collection, street cleaning, and child protection. The pressure on councils is immense – East Ayrshire Council reportedly has 900 staff who have had to self-isolate out of a total of 6,000. Worcestershire County Council put out a call for people, both paid and volunteers, to help keep social care running.
Jonathan Carr-West, CEO of the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU), a local authority membership organisation, believes local government is meeting the current challenge well. The greater issue, according to Carr-West, will be keeping core services going as the crisis continues.
A decade of austerity has hit social care hard. Northamptonshire County Council was the first council in nearly two decades to issue a section 114 notice, effectively declaring bankruptcy in 2018, in part due to the rising cost of social care. At the time the Bureau of Investigative Journalism identified several other councils, mostly rural county authorities, with high social care costs such as Lancashire, Surrey and Norfolk County Councils.
Despite their financial pressures, local governments are stepping up to the challenge. Several have set up volunteer hubs to channel social action. Greater Manchester’s Combined Authority has set up a website where residents can volunteer in each of the ten councils covered by the authority through local charities. This ranges from helping get shopping and do laundry for vulnerable people to making phone calls and doing driving errands.
The voluntary sector itself is badly affected by the pandemic response. Many local charities dependent on meeting targets and running activities are having to renegotiate their funding, furlough staff, and go into hibernation. City councils like Camden, Exeter and Glasgow have launched funds to help keep organisations like these going and support the broader response to coronavirus.
Councils are also continuing to focus on the most vulnerable. Mid Devon District Council is getting out emergency food packages to the most vulnerable, packaged up by staff and delivered in council vehicles normally used for parking enforcement. Islington Council has joined with several local homelessness organisations to provide help to rough sleepers and other homeless people, and to call on local government to commit to further support. Glasgow City Council is working with local charities to provide information to local Roma communities, who are often marginalised from health services.
Even at the most local level, parish councils have worked to coordinate the local response in their community. The LGIU Blog carries the story of Barton St David near Glastonbury, a village of 550 people, where a local action group is collecting prescriptions, shopping, and making phone calls to help isolated people. Around 50 people are part of this very local response to a global pandemic.