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COVID-19: “It is the non-statutory services that are demonstrating the most added value to community cohesion at this time”


These unprecedented times have created a sudden realism in the public consciousness of the prominent role of local government, but what does this mean for the future of public services and, in particular, non-statutory public services?

We all take it as read that the general public are aware it is “the council” that empty their bins, runs their leisure centres and provides parks and open spaces. However, it is interesting to observe how the Coronavirus crisis has opened the public’s eyes to just how much they value wider council services.

At times like this, whether you are looking for support accessing a food delivery, collecting a prescription or understanding what to do about your business situation, we all have the opportunity to reach out to our local council for assistance. Reflecting on the situation within my own authorities, I have noticed it is the non-statutory services that are demonstrating the most added value to community cohesion at this time. 

The Institute for Economic Development has, for many years, been lobbying government to recognise the essential role that economic development professionals play in the local economy and calling for economic development to become statutory. If ever there was a time for this it is now, demonstrated by the role these professionals are playing in this crisis.

In South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse districts we have over 20,000 businesses, the majority of whom employ less than five people. Only 20% of these businesses are eligible to receive any support through the government emergency grants schemes, meaning that 80% need other forms of support.

Engagement with the business community is key for any local authority – my team have been fielding an average of 200 direct calls a week from businesses with a range of concerns about the current situation. Issues span from “when will my grant be paid?” and “when will the lockdown be lifted and how much notice will we get?” to “my insurance company is refusing to cover the pandemic – what do I do next?”

However, the vast majority of calls are from businesses who just want to talk to someone about their issues. What local authority economic development teams are best at is listening and signposting and that it where they are a vital resource in such difficult times as these.

A key message that is being seen and heard by local government decision-makers is that you need these non-statutory services more than ever at the current time, particularly as we move to rebuild our local communities and economies. 

Importantly local councils need to drive this rebuild, and outsourcing or trying to support through wider structures such as local enterprise partnerships will not produce the needed results at the local level. Each local economy and its business community is distinct and has its own needs. Whilst linking with wider neighbours and partners is undoubtedly important, supporting from the bottom up is the best approach.

Clearly this is an even bigger challenge when local councils are facing additional pressure from the pandemic on an already critical financial position. However, one thing that this crisis has demonstrated is the value of, and need for, local government support in such testing times.

In Scandinavia, where there is a high level of public sector involvement in the lives of citizens and high degree of trust in the public sector, organisations are willing to contribute through taxation to ensure public services work properly to meet the needs of the population.

Is this what we will expect after this pandemic for the UK? Will the business community recognise the value and be willing to contribute more financially to their public service provision? Or will local government leaders need to re-evaluate the purpose and role of local government and focus attention on to some of the non-statutory services that are demonstrating their worth more than even during this crisis?

Suzanne Malcolm is Acting Deputy Chief Executive – Place at South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse District Councils and a Director of the Institute of Economic Development