Coronavirus has laid bare the tensions between Whitehall and Town Hall

Coronavirus has laid bare the tensions between Whitehall and Town Hall
Councillor Chris Read, Leader of Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council and Vice-Chair of the Sheffield City Region Board

All MPs want to be councillors, really. From plans for a “National Care Service” to Michael Gove’s dream of nationalising the colour of household bins, the quiet culture clash between Whitehall and Town Hall is played out between ministers’ instinct to run councils from afar as standardised instruments of the state, and our semi-autonomous local authorities who “know their areas best”.

That tension has been keenly felt since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak. When the Prime Minister assumed his role as Managing Director of the nation, issuing instructions to public bodies live via national television every evening, I suggested to a senior member of council staff that daily viewing of these press conferences wasn’t obligatory or even helpful. The officer corrected me: “I have to find out what I’m expected to do tomorrow.”

Detailed guidance from the civil service phalanx often doesn’t arrive until days or even weeks later. In the meantime, hard-pressed local officials have been left trying to interpret new requirements, and residents have been left confused as to why their local arm of “the state” didn’t know the details of central government’s plan.

As the biggest public health crisis for decades has gripped the country, and every day brought new measures that would have been unthinkable just weeks ago, local government has risen to the task in its typically understated way. In Rotherham as in many other places, our local volunteer scheme has seen hundreds of people sign up to ensure that their neighbours get the help that they need whilst self-isolating. As our community has rallied, our Rotherham Heroes have delivered emergency food parcels to more than a thousand residents, as well as helping with other basic tasks. We’ve covered the gaps in the government’s provision to those particularly vulnerable people who are shielding.

At the same time, we are giving extra help to those who need it with their council tax, including payment deferrals for those who have been furloughed from work, and lifting thousands of our lowest income households out of council tax altogether this year. We’ve made additional funding available to provide more online support to victims of domestic abuse, provided additional accommodation to dozens of people who have become homeless since lockdown began, and soberingly we are having to take extra steps to ensure that relatives of the deceased are treated with respect – and that enough funerals can actually take place.

Our social care staff have had to find new ways of operating; how do you ensure the safety of a child you fear is being beaten by a parent when being in the same room risks fatal illness? How do you ensure that an adult with a physical disability is getting the support that they need? Those vital roles are difficult enough for the uninitiated to understand at the best of times, but under conditions of social distancing they really do require a special skillset. Which is why I will remember for the rest of my days the moment that I realised central government and local government mean different things by “social care”, when a civil servant on a ministerial conference call said; “So we’ve heard about PPE for social care, but what about other parts of the workforce, like for example social workers?”. The penny dropped.

At the same time in Rotherham we’ve allocated more than £30 million to over 3,000 businesses under the terms of the government’s emergency grants regime, and reissued business rates bills to eligible small businesses in record time. Working closely with our local chamber of commerce we have been able to reach out to employers across our area. Rotherham was until fairly recently one of the fastest growing local economies in Yorkshire. Who knows what lies ahead?

Whilst all that was going on and the death toll continued to rise, Ministers took to the pages of the Daily Mail to say that half the councils in the country had misunderstood when they closed cemeteries to visitors. And to demonstrate just how clear the regulations were, three days later they re-wrote them. We’ve spent some time over the last fortnight wondering exactly how essential Ministers think travelling to a household waste tip is. At least we now know it’s not illegal.

Sadly what is clear is that there will be a huge bill to pick up when the virus threat finally recedes. If the economic fallout is as bad as some have suggested, councils will have big funding holes from declining council tax and business rate receipts and commercial income. That’s either a good time or a bad time for the government to have quietly shelved its long term plan for council funding, depending on how you look at it. Government has to its credit been clear about covering additional costs incurred during the crisis, like the £1.5 million we expect to be paying every twelve weeks to private and independent care homes and learning disability services providers to keep them afloat and prevent service users being cut even further adrift. But we will have to reach a better understanding of our different worlds to understand that other opportunity costs – for example, the £13 million Rotherham needs to save this year from changes in social care, some of which will be literally, physically undeliverable – will need to be met nationally to avoid the further calamity of councils just running out of money.

The history books will determine how well, or how badly, Britain has managed the catastrophe that has befallen us. There will be more sorrow ahead before it is done. But the task of rebuilding is one we will share in common.

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