Leader speech to full Council, 14 May 2020

Council Leader Cllr Kelham Cooke: Speech to Full Council

Thank you, Madam Chairman, if I can also welcome my colleagues and officers from across South Kesteven, and members of the public who are joining us for our first virtual Full Council meeting.

I think it is safe to say that when I last addressed Full Council, life looked very different. We were debating and agreeing our budget for this financial year; progressing our work to grow our economy; and looking forward to a variety of events to celebrate our wonderful heritage.

That was March 2nd, before the impact of Covid-19 arrived at our doors and changed so swiftly and so decisively how we live and how we work.

As a council, we set out three clear priorities that continue to guide us through this crisis:

·        to protect the health of our staff, members and residents;

·        to maintain our critical services; and

·        to support our local businesses.

Every decision we make supports these priorities and is centred on protecting lives and livelihoods.

Putting people first is what we are committed to doing as a Council. And this is being echoed in our neighbourhoods and on our streets as we clap for carers; wave at those who collect our waste; and volunteer to support our residents who are shielding.

This is a global crisis that cannot be fought and won without collective action at every level. Therefore, our actions, individually and collectively, within our communities, are vital in the battle to defeat Covid-19. 

So before I go any further, I'd personally like to thank everyone - members, staff, community groups, key workers, volunteers and the business community supporting us all for what can only be described as a truly humbling show of strength, determination and kindness in adversity. Every act of compassion, no matter how small, makes a huge difference.

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Madam Chairman, I am proud to say that our collective efforts as a council mean that not only are we achieving our three priorities, we are doing so with such clarity, purpose, and efficiency.

I'd like to give a quick snapshot of just some of the fantastic work that is being undertaken by our officers and members:

Since the lockdown started just over seven weeks ago, we have:

·        Maintained a full waste service.  Collecting a total of 80,000 black, silver, and green waste bins weekly.

·        Ensured that urgent housing repairs are being completed within 24 hours of notification, and that available staff are working on void properties to ensure quick reletting.

·        Continued to support an increased number of homeless and emergency housing cases, including offering all rough sleepers, known to us, assistance and accommodation.

·        Enabled our Customer Services Team to operate remotely providing support not just with their usual services, but also handling calls about council tax, benefits and rents, thus enabling our Revenue and Benefits team to deliver direct specialist support to residents and businesses affected by hardship.

To support our businesses, we have realigned InvestSK with a special focus on business continuity and resilience. I am proud to be able to say that - as a result of the close working between InvestSK and the Council

 South Kesteven District Council remains one of the top councils in the country for delivering much-needed grant aid swiftly into the bank accounts of eligible businesses. The speed with which the Council responded was evident in the fact that more than 900 grants were paid out to eligible businesses within 24 hours of us receiving the money from Government.

To date, we have paid out more than £25million to 2,115 businesses, of the £31.7 million we received from Government.

In terms of business rates relief, figures released today, show that we have awarded more than £17 million to 686 eligible businesses.

The Government recently announced a new discretionary fund to support businesses struggling in these difficult times, who do not currently fall into the previously announced schemes.  I can assure you that the Council will continue to effectively, efficiently and swiftly support the district's businesses in line with the Government guidance received yesterday on these grants.

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When it comes to supporting our communities, one of the first things we did was to establish the SK Community Hub. This has been an unqualified success, the hard work of our team of redeployed staff who keep the hub operating for 11 hours a day, seven days a week. The Hub has taken more than 1,000 calls and received nearly 300 emails from people either needing or offering help. The Hub works hand in glove with the Lincolnshire Resilience Forum in providing help when and where it is needed most, looking after our most vulnerable residents, and co-ordinating the work of the 1,500 volunteers from across South Kesteven.

To support this work further, we swiftly established our Befriending Service, As Leader of the Council I have written to nearly 18,000 potentially vulnerable residents offering them support and regular contact during these times of isolation. Whilst the vast majority have said they have the support they need within their families and communities, nearly 300 vulnerable residents have accepted our offer and are now receiving weekly telephone calls from our Befriending Service. 

Coping with Covid-19 has meant dramatically increased hours for many of our staff, with little respite. Ninety of our staff have redeployed to support critical services - from staffing the SKCommunity Hub; to helping vulnerable residents through our Befriending Service; to training as waste collection loaders and drivers so that our streets remain clean and our bins emptied.  Importantly, this redeployment happened swiftly and smoothly, starting with the establishment of an incident room and two emergency planning teams with clear roles and responsibilities to provide that resilient central core that is essential to strong leadership and management in a crisis.

Our Coronavirus webpage, which has had more than 17,000 views, is frequently updated with any service changes, and I am providing our parish councils with a monthly newsletter to keep them informed. Naturally, we continue to work with and through our local media to communicate vital information to our communities.

And an infographic we produced to visually show what we are doing to support our communities was listed by the Local Government Association as a good example of how councils are keeping their residents informed.

However,  I also know that the rurality and demographics of our district present particular challenges when it comes to tackling the impact of Covid-19 and ensuring our residents have the information they need, especially if their access to the internet is limited. Therefore, we have produced a special Covid-19 edition of SKToday, which is being delivered this week. It is a shorter edition, with a pure focus on providing the information our residents need to support them through this crisis.

As I have already said, I cannot go through all of what we are doing to support those we serve, but I am sure that you all appreciate the amount of hard work undertaken to deliver such a comprehensive and quality service so swiftly and relatively seamlessly.

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During the lockdown, there have been a number of key decisions taken by me and the relevant Cabinet Member.  But for the record, those decisions include:

·        The postponement of this year's Gravity Fields Festival

·        Administration and distribution of the Council Tax hardship fund

·        A doubling of the Ward Member Grant Scheme

·        Remuneration of Street Scene team during Covid-19

·        Deferral of rental income for specific organisations

·        Temporary amendment to Hackney Carriage and Private Hire Licencing

·        Refuse and recycling operational policies

·        Suspension of charges and enforcement action regarding the use of car parks

I know that fellow Members are rightly concerned about the financial impact of coping with Covid-19 on the Council's finances. You will all be aware that due to past and present prudence, we went into this crisis on a sound financial footing.

A finance report will be presented to the Finance, Economic Development and Corporate Services Overview and Scrutiny Committee on the 26th of this month. This will provide an updated position on the financial situation, and how the Council is responding to and managing its finances. It is inevitable that we will need to update and re-position our budgets for this financial year, and Cabinet will be working alongside all committees to review our spending plans for the year in context of the emerging financial outlook. This amended budget proposal will then be put before Full Council in September for all Members to consider. Please let me be clear that this will not be a new budget, it will be a revision of our existing budget in light of the impact of Covid-19.

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As the Prime Minister said last week , nationally we have reached the peak of this wave of Coronavirus.  However, as you know, Lincolnshire is about two weeks behind the national curve.

In our county, as of this morning, we have 996 confirmed cases of Coronavirus and 15 care homes in isolation. To date, 19 care homes have been affected, with 89 known cases, and sadly 186 people have lost their lives to the virus - 125 in hospital, 61 in care homes. Our hearts go out to all those who have lost a loved one to this terrible virus.

The Government is rightly concerned about further potential waves of the Coronavirus and, as with any virus, mutations can never be ruled out. The reality is that impact of Covid-19 will be with us for some time.

That  is quite a sobering thought.

Each step taken in this global fight is a challenge as it is being taken in unknown and unchartered territory. There simply isn't an instruction manual, and effective action relies on individual action as well as government policies and guidance.

For our staff and our members, working patterns remain unchanged since Sunday's announcement.  We were already progressing towards a more agile way of working to increase efficiency and best utilise our assets and our estate. The lockdown has propelled this way of working forward dramatically, and we have shown just how agile we can be. In a matter of a couple of weeks, we moved from about 40 people a day working remotely online, to more than 400. That's quite an achievement.

In addition, our current way of working best protects our staff, members, residents and businesses. Given that we are successfully meeting our three priorities which I set out earlier, there is no need to change how we work at present.  It would be foolish to risk what has been achieved so far by easing restrictions too soon.

However, as you would expect, I am already working with our Cabinet, and with partners across the county and the region, in particular the Lincolnshire Resilience Forum, on the recovery phase. It will be for local authorities to lead the recovery, helping our businesses and our communities emerge from the lockdown with confidence and determination and this will require the support of all members of this council.

This crisis is far from over. But our Council and our communities are stronger than ever. Resilience, kindness and compassion will win, and we will emerge from this crisis with courage and conviction.