This is the archive of 2020 District Matters, a column penned by the Leader of Stratford-on-Avon District Council, Councillor Tony Jefferson.
Please note: these columns have previously been published in the Stratford Herald newspaper.
Got a question for Councillor Jefferson? You can get in touch via Ask the Leader.
Well, it has been pretty eventful since my last leader's column and I have had some new experiences. This is all down to Covid-19.
Just in case people are unaware of how the decisions on Tiers are made the criteria are:
When we looked at the data for Stratford-on-Avon District we realised that our data was way below the average for Warwickshire. Indeed, the day after the decisions on Tiers was announced, the Financial Times published an interesting chart summarising Indicator 1. This showed Stratford-on-Avon District at the very bottom of the areas in Tier 3 and below about 75% of those in Tier 2. This is why we took the action to initiate a Judicial Review. It was not an easy decision, after all one does not commence a legal challenge to government every day. We also took expert specialist legal advice before embarking on our challenge.
What we were not aware of at the time was that the Leaders of Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire had written to the Secretary of State for Health requesting that they be treated as a cluster. Had we been aware of this initiative, then we are sure the legal advice would have been not to proceed.
One of the underlying reasons that we made the challenge was the very serious impact being in Tier 3 has on our hospitality industry. This is against a context where it has been estimated that we are the fourth most heavily impacted council area in the country and the worst affected in the West Midlands. The feedback I have had from businesses has been harrowing. Indeed for every email, and other contact, I have had for every comment against the action we took there have been about 10 in support. What is also very apparent is that people relate strongly to our area and not even Warwickshire as a whole, let alone Coventry and Solihull.
I should make clear that the tone of many of the comments I received was that of genuine anger and much support for our hospitality businesses.
I have now been on three virtual meetings with government, the last on Friday 11 December. At all meetings there was very robust challenge to the decisions on Tiers from across the West Midlands.
I should make absolutely clear that I do not envy the decisions the government has to take. However I think that two points are well worth making:
One final personal comment on Covid-19, dealing with the media is both tiring and stressful.
Meanwhile, the other work of the council continues, we are still wrestling with the budget challenges and we are still developing our ever closer working relationship with Warwick District Council. We have also gained a whole new issue that affects the east of the District with the impact of the HS2 construction work.
So, a challenging time and, as 2020 draws to a close both councillors and officers are looking forward to a break to recharge our batteries for all the challenges 2021 will bring.
I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, and safe, New Year.
Winter is coming, the clocks have altered and the days are getting much shorter. As I write this COVID-19 numbers are increasing and another four week lockdown has been announced.
I am picking up a much greater divergence of opinion on COVID-19 now. There appear to be an increasing number of people saying that we need to accept that we are just going to have to get used to living with the virus. Yet, there are still many people extremely worried about catching the virus. The next month may be a time of increasing tensions and we will all have to appreciate that people may have very different views for very valid reasons.
I cannot help but think that this will be the last time such drastic action as a lockdown can be taken. It appears to me as though the emerging reality is that, even with and effective vaccine, we are going to have to recognise that COVID-19 will become endemic, a bit like flu. There appears to be a reluctance to consider what this means and how we all have to adapt to a new situation. It is also clear that it will take many months for the vaccine to protect a substantial part of the population. So, in the meantime it will be ‘business as usual' closely monitoring the situation and with the prospect of ending up in higher tiers with greater restrictions.
For our District there is no doubt that the month long lockdown will increase the damage to our local economy. Hospitality, tourism and retail will again be hard hit. Unemployment will inevitable increase and any recovery will be pushed even further into the future.
It is amazing how much bad news one can get into four short paragraphs. However, denial and a refusal to face reality is the worst possible response.
I have said before that we have a good Cabinet team and a good officer team. We have no doubts as to the scale of the challenges we face.
On the subject of challenges; we are now turning our minds to the Council Budget for 2021/22 and the Medium Term Financial Plan, which runs for five years from 2021/22. Even before the announcement of the lockdown the picture did not look good. We have established a cross party Council Recovery Advisory Group to ensure that we fully understand the position and that we appreciate the scale and nature of decisions that we will have to take. There is much detailed analysis work underway. The missing part of the equation at the moment is the level of funding that we will receive from central government and the scope we will have for raising council tax. Until we have that information, which we may not get until January then we will not know the scale of the actions we have to take. We will, however, be fully prepared'
Working together with Warwick District to create a ‘Super District' and the potential cost savings that will unlock assumes increased significance. Work on joint procurement of a new waste contract is now well underway and will be a significant help in containing costs in the medium term.
One action we desperately need to take is to invest in the future. This is difficult when our finances are crippled. We are working very hard to secure funding from external sources. However, what is not helpful is the picture people have of Stratford-on-Avon as an extremely prosperous area that does not need short term help. This is why it has been so important to get across the message that we are the fourth hardest hit local authority in the country and the worst hit in the West Midlands. My view is that we need short term help to get us over two potentially difficult years then we will bounce back.
Our recovery will depend on the resilience, adaptability and skills of our people. Despite all the short term issues there are there is a strong foundation on which we can build. These strengths give me great confidence in our future. Meanwhile we will do our very best to navigate safely through the storms that are upon us.
The Leader takes a look at the economic impact of COVID-19 on the District
(Additional post from the Leader not published in the Stratford Herald)
During the Covid crisis it is clear that Government has been striving to strike a balance between restricting the spread of the virus and keeping the economy going – and balance is a key word when it comes to local matters.
Mind you, it is a slightly different balance. We have to remain optimistic that we will get through this, that we have a strong and resilient area and there are many good things happening in all areas of our community.
However, there is no shying away from the fact that the pandemic has had a seismic impact on our economy, and our district has been hit harder than most areas. This will only be exacerbated by the second lockdown.
The number of people in the district who are claiming benefit has tripled since the outbreak, and – while there is a lag in the data – we think we are about to hit a surge in unemployment with the end of furlough.
And when you consider that a couple of months ago if you added together people on self-employed support scheme and those on furlough it equated to 43 per cent of our working population, which is a huge number.
As everyone knows we had an extremely low level of benefit claimants pre-Covid, and finding people for available posts was the issue. How things can change.
We are believed to be the fourth worst impacted district in the country and that is down to the combination of being a major tourism and hospitality region – Stratford alone attracts around three million visitors a year – and the manufacturing we have on our patch.
We are concentrating on trying to position the economy for the future and ensuring we keep things on track which will benefit the area in medium term, as well as dealing with the day-to-day.
We have had, for example, a £1.5 million grant from the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP for the River Corridor Project. We have put £600,000 of section 106 money into that as well and it is now hitting the design stage. That will enhance the attractiveness of the town for visitors.
We are fortunate in having the Wellesbourne Campus of the University of Warwick which is being developed and has just attracted Lotus to the area, while the Quinton Rail Technology Centre is under new ownership and undertaking some very exciting work.
Like everyone, the council has taken a massive hit on income. We estimate that we will be 25 per cent down on income and it will be one hell of a challenge to balance the books.
It is a question of coping as best we can and I think next year will be a struggle, and I don't see a real recovery until 2022 continuing into 2023.
Across the board I think people have really pulled out all the stops. Businesses have had to be flexible, staff have gone the extra mile, and customers have been understanding.
And I would urge everyone to continue their fantastic support of local businesses – it's been tremendous so far and it will prove invaluable if it continues.
As a council we swung into action very quickly indeed to ensure that grants were issued as quickly as possible to those who qualified – and the teams inside the council have been magnificent in ensuring the money reached people, and, having dealt with the early crisis, we are doing everything we can to put the district on the best footing going forward.
That early work was recognised by a string of messages from businesses who, quite frankly, might not have made it through the lockdown without the support.
Being a part of the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP is brilliant for us and it has more than proved its worth over these last eight months. The ability to talk to other authorities and the private sector and to ensure we have a coherent and joined up approach to recovery will prove to be invaluable.
Its Growth Hub, in particular, has been superb in terms of what it can offer and also the intelligence it has provided.
I think everyone recognises we are in this for the long haul and that there will be more bumps in the road, but I am confident that with the assets we have, the actions we have taken and the collective spirit that our residents and business have shown, that we will emerge in as strong a state as possible.
Just when we thought that things were beginning to get back towards a more normal life and we were beginning to have face to face meetings, COVID-19 makes an unwelcomed return. This means that there could be another six months of disruption. Coming after the three months lock down, there is a fear that this could be the last straw for many businesses. The measures taken by the Chancellor will, it is well accepted, not prevent a considerable loss of jobs. I think that many people have been lulled into a false sense of security by the furlough and other schemes. This is not going to last.
Locally, July, August and early September have not been as bad as might have been feared. A good indicator of this is car park numbers which have, at times have been very close to last year's levels. However, winter is coming and this, combined with the new COVID measures, is certain to see a reduction in activity.
One of the vexed issues locally has been the Mop Fairs held under a Royal Charter. SDC also has a contract with the fair operator. I was asked very frequently why we had not cancelled the mop. The very simple answer is that we did not have any powers under which we could unilaterally cancel them. Cancelling them had to be done by negotiation and this took time, but after a lot of effort, we got there in the end. There was a small ride in place for a short time to ensure that the Royal Charter was maintained.
This is just another illustration of things that look easy from the outside are far from straightforward when we have to deal with the realities.
I can confirm what I said in last month's column that the third round settlement is not generous. At present we are forecasting that our deficit for the year will be around £4million. This will be covered by reserves; however reserves can only be used once.
Working with Warwick District Council is progressing. Julie Lewis is now a shared role between the two councils. A Head of IT has just been selected and that role is also shared between the two councils. We still need to appoint a joint Section 151 officer, which, in the current climate will be a key role. We should not underestimate the issues in creating a joint District. The two pinch points will be IT and culture. Given the state of SDC finances going forward I referred to above, the cost savings that can be made through merger are even more important.
Perhaps the most demanding issue we have had to manage recently has been the vexed issue of local government reorganisation. We have received the report from Deloitte; ‘Warwickshire: Options for the future of local government structures: phase 1'.
Three options were examined:
The options were assessed against five criteria:
The two unitary model was ranked first on four out of the five criteria. The single unitary was ranked second overall and the status quo third.
As I write this I understand that the White Paper has been deferred and I believe that it may not reappear until later next year. Nevertheless I do not believe that the status quo is sustainable in future and this issue will reappear. The work that has been done definitely will not be wasted.
There have been two planning papers issued for consultation. If adopted as they stand we would have to accommodate more houses in the District. Our response has been very robust and we have questioned many of the proposals.
Finally, as I write this column our COVID-19 cases are rising. By the time you read this action will probably have been taken.
I am sorry if this month's column is a bit longer than usual but, given the significance of the issues I think it best that people have an understanding of the key issues we are dealing with.
Well, as it turned out there was not that much respite during August. Life continued to be busy and the autumn looks hectic.
Last month I mentioned that there were 19,800 people on the furlough scheme. The latest figures show this is now just over 20,000. Indeed when I add together the number of people unemployed (3,065), the number of people on the furlough scheme (21,200) and the number of people on the self-employed income support scheme (5,500) the total is almost 30,000. This is 43% of the working population of Stratford District. With the furlough scheme beginning to wind down this is, to me, a genuinely scary number. It appears inevitable that unemployment will increase dramatically by the end of the year. I still find that many people have not grasped the magnitude of the challenge awaiting us. Facing reality is the first step in dealing effectively with issues.
It appears as though unemployment will hit across the spectrum, anecdotally a considerable number of managerial and professional jobs will be affected.
Furthermore, the latest Local Authority forecasts by KPMG show Stratford District's Gross Value Added (GVA) falling by 14.4% in 2020 and recovery in 2021 drops well short of making up the fall. (Think of GVA as a proxy for economic activity). We are the worst hit local government area in the West Midlands. This reinforces the report earlier in the year, which showed Stratford District as the fourth hardest hit area in the country.
This is important because, historically, Stratford District has been seen as prosperous and with full employment. It therefore does not need support and can look after itself. We have managed to correct that perception and these figures enable us to reinforce our current position.
Now, to turn to better news, in August at one stage our car park occupancy was almost back to 2019 levels and footfall showed a similar pattern. Thanks to the ‘Eat Out to Help Out scheme' restaurants were busy. Although car parking and footfall are very weather dependent, it demonstrates the underlying resilience of Stratford-upon-Avon. This means that it is still an attractive place to invest in leisure, hospitality and tourism. We are working hard to ensure that we get more investment and I hope that within a short time I can confirm two substantial new investments. There is one further idea that we are working together with businesses on that would be genuinely exciting.
We have heard from central government about the third round of funding. It consisted of 24-pages of bureaucratic complexity our finance people are still attempting to decipher. The initial view is that it is far from generous.
Closer working with Warwick District continues to gather pace. One management team position working across both districts is now in place and we are recruiting for another starting this week.
There are two Planning White Papers out for consultation at the moment. These could have a very significant impact on the district. Officers are currently analysing these in detail and we will be briefed on these shortly.
On local government reorganisation, we received the draft report from Deloittes last Friday. We are currently studying this very closely but, from an initial reading I think the overall tone of the report is positive. This is an issue where there are two totally legitimate but differing views. There will inevitably be robust exchanges of view.
If I look at local government reorganisation, and the White Paper has yet to be issued, and the Planning White Papers, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a failure to think through the full implications and impacts of these proposals. I also think that when it comes to turning proposals into reality there may be a belief in magic wands, where the reality of change tends to be a long hard slog.
Keep well and stay safe.
I really am glad it is August and things are easing off a little in terms of the number of meetings. It has been very full on since March and the weariness and tiredness is obvious in everyone. This applies to Councillors, particularly Cabinet members, and officers alike.
We have received £1.5 million in funding for the Riverside corridor project. This gives us the opportunity to create something that will make a huge difference to Stratford and significantly help our recovery. The Henley Street project is now complete with the erection of a statue to Shakespeare, and the whole thing looks very attractive.
We were also heartened by the news that Lotus are basing some of their operations on The University of Warwick Wellesbourne campus.
I think that all of these initiatives are a pattern for the future, investment will not come directly through local councils, whether District or County, but will come through other bodies, such as the CWLEP. This puts an ever greater premium on networking and representation on these bodies. Our efforts over the past two years are now bearing fruit.
The importance of investment is underlined by the fact that in July there were 19,800 people on furlough in the District and, in June, 5,500 people on the self-employed income support scheme. However, I do have real concerns about what is going to happen when these schemes end.
We have yet to hear the details of the third round of government funding for local authorities, but we have prepared as far as we can so we can react quickly when we receive the details. Meanwhile we are progressing with some immediate cost saving initiatives.
On local government reorganisation, all the Districts and Boroughs in Warwickshire have now commissioned a piece of work by Deloittes to explore all the options available. We are also, jointly, beginning a consultation exercise with residents to better understand their preferences. We expect the results early in September.
Meanwhile, we are progressing the joint working initiative with Warwick District Council. Two management team roles will be shared by Warwick and Stratford. The first will become operational very swiftly and the recruitment for the second role has started.
We await the White Paper on local government reorganisation with interest. We now believe that, at best, any reorganisation, including Warwick and Stratford Districts will not be completed before 2023.
There is work ongoing with the Local Government Boundary Commission on the number of councillors and the ward boundaries in Stratford-on-Avon District. I think there is a general acknowledgement that 36 is too few councillors to run an effective council, given the way in which workload has increased over the past few years. It is recognised that local government reorganisation may overtake this piece of work, but the Boundary Commission assure us that the work will not be wasted.
In Stratford-upon-Avon a great deal of time and effort has been spent on the vexed issue of road configuration. There have been very obvious tensions with the view from many businesses that the restrictions were having a negative impact on their trade balanced with the need for people to have sufficient space to feel safe. Finally, a compromise was reached which appears broadly acceptable. Although highways issues are, strictly speaking, a WCC responsibility, the fact that we got stuck in to help resolve the issue demonstrates our ‘can do' attitude to tackling challenges.
As you can see, we have been busy.
One thing we are finding that this crisis is doing is exposing those organisations and individuals responding positively to the challenges from those that are less proactive and responsive.
In the meantime, please keep safe and socially distanced and thank you for supporting your local shops and businesses.
The slow recovery from COVID-19 continues. Whilst it is clear that Stratford-upon-Avon is getting busier and more people are getting into the town, the data we have from our car park numbers indicate usage is between 40-50% of last year. Unsurprisingly weekends are busier than weekdays.
Furthermore, I have to report that the clear message I get from the business people who attend the CWLEP and WMCA Economic Recovery Group is that the recovery is slower than expected. This is particularly true of the hospitality, arts and culture sectors. Unsurprisingly this affects Stratford badly.
For us recovery is, I am afraid, going to be a long, slow haul.
We have yet to hear any news about our bid for the Riverside Corridor project. I understand that decisions will be made by the end of this month. I am told that there will be more rounds of funding available, which is good news should we not be successful in this round.
On a more positive note we have been advised that there is going to be a third round of Government funding available for local authorities. We should benefit considerably from this, although it will by no means offset all the negative impacts we have felt through being hit so hard by loss of income. The prospect of additional funding will also buy us a bit more time to put together plans to tackle the substantial budget shortfall. The relentless and intensive lobbying we have done over the last four months has paid off.
The support the Government has announced for the arts and culture will also help, although the devil as always will be in the detail.
I am working hard with a group consisting of Shakespeare's England, the CWLEP, the RSC and the Birthplace Trust to put together a reality case and ask of Government to support us through the next 18 months to two years and position our tourist industry to return to growth.
Outside of Stratford Town we are continuing to work with the University of Warwick on the development of the Wellesbourne Campus. There should be some good news to announce shortly.
In September, the Government have announced that they will be issuing a ‘white paper' that will identify options for increasing the powers for local government, as well as undertaking a review of the structure of local government. Ahead of this Stratford have already decided that it would like to work more closely with Warwick District Council on areas such as sharing a number of senior positions, jointly tendering for large contracts and working together on the next version of our Core Strategy. All of these initiatives are designed to provide benefits for our residents and businesses whilst at the same time reducing costs.
In addition, the Council is calling upon the County Council and all other district and borough councils within Warwickshire to commission a review to help determine the best structure of local government for the future. During this review we will be seeking the views of the public, the town and parish councils and our businesses. Further details on this review will be available shortly.
Whilst the number of COVID-19 cases have flattened across the district, the importance of social distancing and rigorous hand hygiene measures continue to be absolutely essential across all settings.
Life will continue to be very busy and, it looks as though it is going to be far from boring.
In my last column I said that I was not sure that many people had understood the implications of the biggest economic downturn in centuries. Despite the continual flow of grim economic news I am afraid that this is still the case. There appears to be great deal of denial around. Many people are still acting as though COVID-19 is merely a brief interruption and then things will continue much as before. I was at a meeting last week where businessmen were feeding back experience from the sharp end, it wasn't good, and I could see that the Chair of the meeting appeared ‘shell-shocked'.
Locally, Stratford-on-Avon District has 17,100 people on furlough, the highest number of any Warwickshire District or Borough. High levels of unemployment will be the big issue coming down the track fast.
In dealing with any crisis one of the first things to do is face reality, no matter how bad it looks. I think that the team we have at Stratford District Council have a realistic grasp of what is facing us. In part this is because some of us are old enough to have experienced the 1980's recession in the workplace with falling output and rising unemployment. What we are currently facing will be the 1980's writ large and in part because all the portfolio holders have substantial experience in the commercial world.
The last month has seen us all intensify our lobbying efforts about the state of the District's finances as a result of the loss of income. This has affected many councils across the country. A fortnight ago I was (virtually) at a conference organised by the Local Government Association attended by many of the councils most heavily impacted. Attendees included Bath, Brighton, Bournemouth, York and Liverpool; the common feature was tourism. Our officers have also been in discussions with the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government spelling out our financial position in very direct terms.
As yet there appears to be no movement. This may be because we understand that the funding shortfall across local government is in the order of £10 billion. However, one message that does appear to have got across is that we are the 4th worst impacted council by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The state of our finances and that of the tourist industry are closely linked. The latest figures for 2018 show we had 6.7 million visitors with a total value of £461.4 million supporting over 8,500 jobs. The growth rate was 12.7% between 2017 and 2018. In other words it is a huge success story. The latest data from VisitBritain clearly shows that we can expect no rapid recovery. Only 30% of people surveyed expect ‘normality' by September, this rises to 53% expecting it by December. Outdoor areas and activities are set to be more popular than indoor activities and venues; hence the popularity of the ‘Rec'.
Obviously this hits our Shakespeare attractions hard, the RSC, Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare's Schoolroom will all struggle financially and as a Council we will do everything we can to support their lobbying efforts for financial support. Just to be absolutely clear, all the data indicates that it will be at least 2022 before there will be a substantial recovery. One of our big concerns is that the tourist, hospitality and retail infrastructure degrades over the next two years, further inhibiting recovery. Remember there are 17,100 people furloughed and it is their livelihoods that are at stake. However, I am confident that the ‘Stratford-upon-Avon' and ‘Shakespeare' brands will play a crucial role in enabling our recovery.
Reopening Stratford town centre to provide a safer environment for shoppers, pedestrians and businesses to operate is all part of the recovery process and we have worked closely with Warwickshire County Council and the Town Council to put a new, but temporary road allocation scheme in place within extremely short timescales.
Improving the appearance of barriers is high on the agenda and we are hoping to tap into the creativity of local art groups to reflect the distinctive look and feel of our new look town. As hospitality businesses open, the space created may allow them to increase their outside tables to accommodate the social distancing requirements.
On a positive note, we have paid out £30.78m to 2,503 businesses on the Business Rate Grant scheme. We now have the princely sum of £1.7 million to distribute through a ‘discretionary' scheme, although given the constraints imposed on us, I wonder if the people at the centre truly understand the meaning of the word ‘discretionary'.
We have also had the opportunity to bid for capital schemes through the CWLEP, it is an illustration of the speed at which we have to work that we received notice of this opportunity late on Wednesday and the bids will need to be submitted by Monday. It is perhaps unsurprising that given the speed and intensity with which we have to work and the extent of lobbying and influencing we have to do that many of us are weary. This is both officers and portfolio holders. We are aware that the effort needs to be put in now to help secure our future.
Finally, another piece of good news, Julie Lewis has joined the team as Head of Community and Operational Services; she is a most welcome addition to the team and has joined us at a time when we really did need reinforcements.
In my last column I said that the world has changed. What we have yet to discover is exactly what the changes will be.
There are some things we know:
In short, we are facing the biggest economic downturn for centuries. I am not sure that most people have fully understood the implications of this yet. It seems to me that many people are assuming that we will recover from this fairly quickly and the world will then continue much the same as before.
Locally we now are getting much clearer on a number of things. The most significant of which is that the District Council finances have taken a huge hit. The total impact, up to now of COVID-19 is £8.15 million. We have received funding from government of £1.343 million leaving a shortfall of £6.8 million. Contrast this with the County Council who had a total impact of £29.4 million and have received £24.68 million. It would appear as though central government did not grasp the negative impact on revenue; in our case we estimate our lost income is £6.6 million. Strong representations have been made about this and there is hope of a third round of funding that may go some way to addressing this. Councils in tourist areas appear to be particularly affected.
What we are doing now is lobbying as hard as we can for more funding and developing scenarios projecting the impact over the next 5 years. In all honesty, we do not expect to have the full shortfall covered, so as the position becomes clearer we will have to decide how to react. It is inevitable that very difficult decisions will have to be made fairly swiftly. It would be fair to observe that none of our councillors expected this but times have changed and we have to adapt to them.
This leads neatly on to the next key issue, as a District tourism is our second biggest industry employing an estimated 7,000 people. It also underpins our retail industry and town centres, particularly in Stratford-upon-Avon itself. All the estimates are that hospitality and tourism will be the last industries to recover. Long haul tourism in particular. Furthermore, hospitality, tourism and retail will find it particularly challenging to cope with social distancing requirements as we emerge from lockdown. We can expect our local economy to take a heavy hit this year and probably next. We are spending considerable time and effort getting the message across that we will need substantial help to maintain our tourist infrastructure whilst demand recovers. Indications are that the message is being heard but the UK in general does not appear to appreciate the economic significance of tourism.
However successful we are, it would be unrealistic to expect our tourist industry, retail and town centres not to change significantly. We are in the process of putting together a group to explore what the impacts might be and what we may be able to do to help.
It was good to see Stratford coming back to life on Saturday; it restored a feeling of normalcy. However there is no doubt that many people will see these numbers of people as a threat. When the guidance was ‘stay home', decisions were easy. Now the guidance is more nuanced I suspect that no one will be content. I fear that one of the issues over the next few, or even many weeks will be the tensions increasing across society. There are no easy answers or solutions although I anticipate many people, who do not have to make the decisions, will think that there are.
We are facing unprecedented times and a huge measure of uncertainty. I think that we need to watch carefully how things unfold and be ready to react rapidly. We also have to be careful not to suffer the unintended consequences of hasty action.
I am writing this column whilst I am recovering from COVID-19. In my case I think I have escaped fairly lightly, just extreme tiredness verging on exhaustion. (Reading the finished article I realise the impact it has had).
Since my last column the world has changed. We have had a council meeting where only the minimum number of councillors needed to ensure a quorum were present (nine). At that meeting we, in effect delegated decision making to officers and the Leader. We were seated 2 metres apart which gave the meeting a surrealistic feel.
The way in which we operate has had to change out of all recognition. As an example, on 16 March there were 44 officers working from home, on 9 April there were 209. We have increased the number of desktop licences from 100 to 400, and accelerated the procurement of 100 laptops. All have now been delivered.
The way we work has changed dramatically, until last week every morning the Deputy Leader and I had a video conference with the CEO and Deputy. The Deputy Leader and I then had a video conference on the evening with the portfolio holders. We then set up a ‘buddy system' where we briefed all the other councillors between us. Video and teleconferencing has become very much the norm, I have these with; the District Councils network, the Department of Housing Communities and Local Government, the WMCA and one that includes WCC, all the Districts and Boroughs in the County and the local MP's. After a few early failures I have now got the hang of how to do these properly. I think we have all had to learn new skills very quickly.
The District Council has been stretched by the need to respond to the sheer scale of crisis. To pick out some of the salient areas of activity:
Overall the sheer scale of the activity required has put everyone in the Council under significant pressure. Groups worth particular mention are, the staff in the Contact Centre who have been dealing with a doubling in calls - it is not only the volume of calls that is stressful but also the nature of the calls where individuals and families are struggling to manage a sudden and dramatic change in their circumstances. We have had discussions about whether these people should work remotely or whether for support they are better working together as a team in Elizabeth House. Our staff are used to dealing with challenging customers but the complexity and the emotional nature of many of the calls can be seen by looking at the weariness and stress etched on people's faces at the end of each day. Our concern for our staff is balanced by the need for us to continue to provide the services that people are reliant on in these challenging times, is a major consideration.
The other group is IT, with the huge increase in the number of people working remotely and 100 new laptops to configure to our requirements they have enabled us to ‘keep the show on the road'. The concern with this team is that again we are reliant on a relatively small number of staff to maintain the level of work over what could be an extended period.
Given the sheer scale of the challenges and the need to respond rapidly it should be no surprise that some people and businesses will ‘fall through the cracks'. We do need to remember how much has been achieved and how many businesses and individuals have been helped. I am proud of the way in which everyone in the Council has responded.
I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank them all.
There is only one subject to write about at the moment and that is the impact of COVID-19.
The impacts are severe at a number of levels:
The reality is that we are pretty much in uncharted territory. It is unprecedented in peacetime for countries to go into ‘lock down'. Normal flows of trade and travel have ceased and it is uncertain how long this will last.
As a Council we are now working out how we adapt and play our part to reduce the spread of the virus. Obviously we cannot cease operations. Our first key step is to put in place the capability for as many people to home work as possible and then maximise the number of people doing this. We recognise that not only do we have to stay open but we have to be seen to stay open. Our main reception and contact centre will remain manned and, on Monday we decided to keep the Visitor Information Centre open. After all, tourism is our second biggest industry. On Tuesday we decided that, given the massive reduction in the number of visitors, we would close it. This is an indication of how fast things are changing.
We then intend reducing to an absolute minimum the number of meetings that need to be held. One of the issues we have is that legally people have to be physically present at decision making meetings. We have been told that the law will be changed, this week, so that people will no longer have to be present. This is particularly important for Planning and Licensing meetings. We will be putting the technology in place so that these meetings can operate using remote technology. We have cancelled all council meetings until the end of March which gives us time to understand what we can and can't do.
We are taking actions and making decisions step by step. In part this is because we need decisions and guidance from government and in part because we are testing our thinking on options so we attempt to ‘get it right first time'.
In the short term the main issues will be around social care and people deemed to be vulnerable. Social care is the province of Warwickshire County Council. People thought to be vulnerable to COVID-19 are estimated at between 1.2 and 1.7 million. A lot of the support needed will be done by community groups, we will need to think through and consult on where and how we can add value.
What is a major concern is the longer term economic and business impacts, and some of these will manifest very quickly. We anticipate that hotels and the hospitality industry will begin to shed staff, probably starting this week. We also anticipate that retail will be even harder than it has been. In short we expect redundancies and short-time working to become more significant very quickly. In the slightly longer term we expect that many more businesses will be hit by either lack of demand or supply chain issues.
We believe that as the COVID-19 crisis continues then there will be an increasing number of people with council tax arrears and issues with their rent. This may mean an increase in workload and the implications will need to be considered.
We understand that we, as a council will be responsible for implementing the proposals on business rates and the hardship fund as announced in the budget. This will be another load on us at a challenging time. We are awaiting government guidance on how we have to implement these. We have still not had any formal guidance or instructions from last week's business rates budget announcements let alone something that was announced at 6pm on Tuesday 17 March.
Overall we are preparing as best we can for a journey into uncharted territory. We have focussed on the most urgent issues and have identified those that can be considered later yet, still before they really impact.
In the longer term we will need to be thinking through how we help the District recover and prepare for the ‘new normal' from mid-2021 onwards. I think we have to be clear that the ‘new normal' may be very different from the pre COVID-19 normal. We all will need to adapt.
Climate change is a hot topic at the moment. However, despite all the rhetoric there seems to be many things about it people fail to grasp. So this month's column does come with a ‘health warning' as the subject matter is complicated and technical.
I first began looking closely at climate change in 2007, and my initial thought was the impact of this was way off in the future; by the time we finished the work in 2009 I realised just how wrong I was. My current view is that the impacts will be much bigger and come much faster than most people realise.
There is no doubt that global warming is substantially enhanced by man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, not just carbon dioxide. In 1995 the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that the aim should be to restrict emissions to keep global temperature rise to 2°c. In the 25 years since then there has been a remorseless, and in some cases, an accelerating rise in the concentration of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
On 5 December 2019 The Economist, widely regarded as a reputable source published a briefing on climate change. It said ‘Hitting 2°c can no longer be done by mitigation alone. It requires between 100bn and 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 removing from the atmosphere by the end of the century (Median is 730 billion tonnes).'
Furthermore, ‘In some IPCC scenarios planting a forest the size of Russia would only absorb 200 billion tonnes of CO2.'
And finally: ‘…….gains from negative emissions. It is a trick that comes perilously close to magical thinking.'
There is, I think, an emerging view that, on current trends, global warming will be 3°c and a realistic planning assumption would be 4°c. What is perhaps more disturbing is the frequent upward revisions in estimated sea level rise. IPCC now estimates 80+cms, again there appears to be an emerging view that sea level rise could top 1 metre by 2100, and some think it could hit 2 metres. Sea level rises will continue for centuries beyond 2100.
I appreciate that many environmentalists may find this challenging; however, global warming is a global issue and requires massive global scale solutions. Whilst the UK is doing relatively well on emissions reductions what will matter more is what, China, USA, India and Russia do. Consumption of fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas is still increasing.
So, what are we as a District Council doing? We have declared a climate emergency which aims to be carbon neutral by 2030. We have prepared a Supplementary Planning Document on climate change adaptation and mitigation which aims to ensure that new development whether commercial, housing, changes of use or householder extensions, incorporate measures to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. The draft guidance is currently out for consultation, this ends on 21 February and after taking on board comments received we aim to adopt the final version by the summer.
What we have yet to do is fully understand and then take action on what impact global warming will have on the district.
The most likely outcomes are:
Up to now focus has been largely on mitigation, whilst we will not take the eye off that ball, we need to put more effort into adaptation.
We are far from alone in this. The Committee on Climate Change reported to Parliament in 2019: ‘England is still not prepared for even a 2°C rise in global temperature, let alone more extreme levels of warming. Only a handful of sectors have plans that consider a minimum of 2°C global warming – water supply, road and rail, flood defences and flood risk planning for infrastructure."
We see our Core Strategy review, starting later this year as the perfect vehicle to get to grips with adaptation to a much different climate. The sooner we get started the better. We want houses designed and built now that can cope with higher temperatures; we want to prevent houses being built on what will be very much larger flood plains and we want to prevent houses being built where water supply may be an issue. The next Core Strategy will run through to 2045/50, by then I would expect the impact of global warming to be very noticeable.
By the time our next Core Strategy is published, our aim is to be seen as leaders in thinking and action on adaptation to the substantial impacts of global warming. We want to increase significantly the resilience of our district to cope with what is inevitably coming. I see this as responsible and strategic community leadership.
The green waste charge has generated a great deal of heat and comment. It is, however, merely the tangible manifestation of a number of much deeper issues.
One of the fundamental drivers of the pressures that the public sector as a whole is under is the inescapable fact that the economic performance of the UK since 2007 has been dreadful. If our economy had grown at pre 2008 rates, the economy would have been about £300 billion larger. Tax take would have been about £110 billion bigger, assuming the proportion of GDP collected as tax remained constant.
In other words, our lacklustre economic performance has constrained our capacity to spend on public services.
People who assume that ‘austerity' is to blame should be aware that the size of the state as a proportion of GDP has remained unchanged since 2007.
The distribution of spending on public service, however, has shifted considerably. The amount spent per person, other than on health and pensions has been reduced by 21%. Stratford District Council has been protected from this squeeze by the New Homes Bonus. Because a great many new homes have been built in the District, we have benefited from this far more than most councils.
Unfortunately, after the coming financial year (2020/21) this funding will be taken away from district councils and reallocated, most probably to Social Care provision which is a County Council responsibility. By 2023/24 this will leave a £5.3 million hole in our budget. What makes our situation more challenging is that, because of the intervention of the general election, we only have a one year settlement. Under normal circumstances we would now have had a settlement for four years so enabling us to plan with a degree of certainty.
Then we come to the constraints Central Government place on us regarding raising money. The Council is capped on the amount by which it can raise council tax, to 2% or, perhaps for 2020/21 to only £5. Increasing council tax by 2% raises about £163k in revenue compared to charging £40 for a green bin which raises £800k a year.
The rules we operate under are very clear that we cannot just add, the discretionary service of green waste charge to council tax.
A further constraint is that our Head of Finance specifies a minimum level of reserves we must hold. This is £2.5 million. If we drop below that in any year of the Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP), then he will not ‘sign off' the budget – a legal requirement. With the proposed MTFP, including the charge for green waste, we are showing reserves of £3.1 million in four years' time (2024/25). If we do not charge for green waste, our income would be reduced by then by £4 million. We would then have to find alternative ways of increasing revenue by £4 million or of cutting costs by £4 million and ultimately reducing services.
Finally, in 2024/25 there will be a need to draw on reserves to the tune of £3.2 million. As reserves at this time would only be £3.1 million, it is obvious that we will need to find another £3 million or so through revenue raising or cost savings decisions. It is true, we do currently have a relatively high level of reserves, but these will need to be used to support spending over the next few years. You can only draw on reserves once. Once they are spent, they are spent.
The challenges for us in the medium term are far from over. This year's MTFP is merely the start of period of very difficult decisions, if we are to maintain current services. My view has always been it is responsible to take tough decisions as early as possible. This is what we are doing. It is far preferable to assuming that, like Mr Micawber, ‘something will turn up'.
Stepping back to look at the big picture, the challenges we face as a District Council are perhaps an extreme, version of the challenges faced across the public sector. Economic growth is insufficient to underpin increased spending, so, it's either pay more or get less. It really is that simple. Not only will councils have to make ever tougher decisions but residents will also have to think very clearly about their priorities and what they are willing to pay.
The days when being a councillor was about spending money and only giving good news are well and truly over. As councillors we all need to face up to our community leadership responsibilities and be prepared to explain to residents the realities we face.