Agenda item

Croydon Together: Update on our ongoing response to Covid-19

Officer: Jo Negrini

Key decision: no


The Leader of the Council delegated authority to the Cabinet to make the following decisions:


RESOLVED: To note the report and the actions taken in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.


The Leader noted that lower numbers were starting to be seen in terms of hospital admissions, however a significant challenge remained in Croydon in terms of health and economic crises. The financial challenges were recognised and the Leader thanked Chris Philp MP for his work in promoting fairer funding and for recognising the importance of cross party working.


Members thanked all of the staff, NHS workers, care home workers and volunteers who had stepped up to support residents during a period of adversity.


The Director of Public Health noted that while infections and deaths were reducing in England, there had still been 55 deaths announced that day which meant there were 55 bereaved families. Significant risks remained; the virus was highly contagious and infectious and so it was imperative people stuck with social distancing and only made journeys where necessary. Everyone in Croydon was thanked for their contributions to reducing the spread; however, it was noted that significant work remained to combat the virus.


The Chief Executive noted that the work to develop strong partnerships over previous years had been a key strength in Croydon’s response to the pandemic. The council would not have been able to respond so well without the work of the NHS and the community and voluntary sector. It was recognised that through coordinated partnership working residents across the borough had been supported. BIDs were also recognised for their vital work in supporting businesses throughout this period.


Despite these partnerships, responding to the pandemic was recognised as having been a challenge as a number of responsibilities had been placed upon local government. The Chief Executive further stressed that the council was still responding to the pandemic and would continue to support care homes and shielded residents.


Members were informed that there were 14,500 shielded residents in the borough and of those 2,500 required additional support. This support would continue in the weeks and months ahead, especially in light of discussions of the government withdrawing food packages for the vulnerable as there would be many residents who would be concerned about going out.


The Chief Executive noted that the council had been given additional duties by the government in relation to care homes. The council had been providing support, including PPE and training, to care homes in Croydon since the beginning of the pandemic; however additional responsibilities of coordinating the testing of care home residents and staff had been placed on the Director of Public Health. It was confirmed that care homes would continue to be supported in acquiring PPE.


Members were informed that over £200k in emergency grants to the voluntary and community sector had been distributed. Furthermore, of the £60m in business grants received, £44.8m had been awarded. It was noted that there was a wide range of businesses in Croydon and some were very small; as such the Chief Executive requested that if councillors came across a business in need of support that they inform her and the Section 151 Officer so that they could be contacted.


15 June 2020 was an important date for the borough with retail shops opening and secondary schools reopening. The council was also working to reopen Bernard Weatherill House on that date and the Town Hall on 29 June. The Chief Executive further noted that from 22 June restaurants and bars would be able to reopen for outdoor trade. It was important that the council supported this sector and supported as many businesses to reopen as possible through a number of measures, including suspending parking outside businesses, where appropriate, to increase outdoor trading space.


Members were informed that the service mobilisation plan would be ready by the end of the month. In Bernard Weatherill House there was a large amount of work undertaken with deep cleans, lift guidance developed and one-way systems introduced. Staff would be able to return from 1 July; however considering the building would only be able to accommodate 20% of staff this would need to be managed. It was recognised by the Chief Executive that there were a number of staff who wanted to return to the office and that staff welfare was a key consideration.


The Chief Executive noted that most schools in the borough had remained open throughout the period for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. Since 1 June, 60 primary schools had widened their opening to welcome children back and to facilitate this, there had been a large amount of work undertaken by both council staff, head teachers and teachers. Members were informed that there was roughly 35-45% uptake at present, however that figure was increasing on a daily basis.


Members were informed that the Director of Public Health had been given responsibility to coordinate track and trace in the borough which was a fundamental part of the government’s policy to save lives. The app for track and trace was still in development, however beacon areas had been identified and the council would seek to learn from their experiences.


Whilst there had been a reduction in deaths and infections, key risks remained. The council was in conversation with the NHS on how it could plan for a second wave. Furthermore, it was noted that there had been an enormous impact on residents, in particular vulnerable residents, and the economic impact had been huge with Universal Credit applications rising by 4%. The council was preparing for the impact of a second wave however would do everything possible to stimulate the economy to reduce the economic impact on residents.


The Chief Executive noted that the government had committed to support local authorities with the costs of responding to the pandemic; however this was not being fully covered as there were a number of direct covid-19 costs which were not being met, including loss of income and loss of in-year savings. Members were advised that the council had submitted returns to the MHCLG which indicated a full year funding gap of £62.7m and this was against the backdrop of London Councils projecting a funding gap of £1.3b across London. It was stressed that the financial challenge was significant and that the council was lobbying hard for this to be recognised and funded by the government.


The council, however, did not want to wait until the final settlement to tackle this financial challenge and so had implemented two measures. The Chief Executive advised the first measure was short-term and included stopping non-essential spending and implementing a recruitment freeze. The second measure was to review options which could be put in place to support bridging the gap. To support this work, the council had established a Finance Review Panel which was chaired by Duncan Whitfield and sought to drive forward the work to deliver as many savings programmes as possible.


The Leader and Chief Executive welcomed Duncan Whitfield to the meeting.


Mr Whitfield advised Members that he had 40 years’ experience of local government finance and had begun his career in Croydon. He now worked at Southwark council which had similar ambitions and pressures to Croydon.


Members were informed that the Panel was in the early days of establishment with an agreed Terms of Reference and Project Initiation Document in place. There were 24 work streams in place and an update on progress of these was expected in the coming weeks. The Panel would review these work streams and would also begin planning for 2021/22 budget setting.


It was recognised that there were significant financial challenges, but that these challenges were not unique to Croydon and were being experienced by local authorities across the country. In Croydon there were, however, historical challenges of low reserves and balances.


Members were advised that there would be tough decisions in the months ahead, however Mr Whitfield stated that he was confident that with the commitment and pace seen to-date progress would be made.


The Cabinet Member for Finance & Resources noted that the financial pressures were unprecedented and had been exacerbated by historic underfunding and UASC underfunding. Measures had been put in place to deal with the immediate situation and the work of the Panel was to formulate a plan that was true to the ethos of the administration. Tough decisions, it was noted, would need to be made to balance the finances of the council and the work of the Section 151 Officer was praised for ensuring the finances of the council remained viable.


The Cabinet Member welcomed the announcement on UASC funding which would bring an estimated £4m extra income to the council in 2021. This had been an area the council had been lobbying government on for a number of years. The Cabinet Member stated that it was hoped that the government would fund covid-19 costs as it had committed.


The Chief Executive noted that since the beginning of the pandemic an incredible amount of work had been undertaken by council staff to respond to the pandemic, but also to ensure business as usual was still taking place and had now begun supporting the work on the finances of the council. All staff were thanked by the Chief Executive for their work and dedication. The Leader echoed the thanks and noted that it had been inspiring to see the work of officers being recognised by residents. It was hoped that this connection between residents and the council would continue to be built upon.


The Cabinet Member for Homes & Gateway Services thanked the staff which had gone above and beyond in providing essential homes and gateway services. Thanks were also given to those in the communities who had stepped up to support others. Concerns were raised in terms of residents losing their homes and jobs and that there was a housing benefits system in place that was not fit for purpose.


It was noted that the gateway service had been set up in Croydon to address the inequality and poverty experienced by residents across the borough and this service would be needed by more residents than ever as the financial implications of covid-19 were felt.


Members noted that those who were homeless had no recourse to public funds and this was an issue which would be felt across London. Whilst excellent work had taken place to house them during the peak of the pandemic, the remaining issue of having no recourse to public funds remained.


The Cabinet Member for Children, Young People & Learning informed Members that a lot of hard work had gone into the planning of re-opening schools and to supporting young people across the borough with secondary school children due to return next. A detailed briefing had been circulated on the work which had gone into supporting young people to return to school. It was noted that most schools within the borough had remained open throughout the pandemic, however these schools were now increasing their numbers of students attending each day.


The Cabinet Member for Clean Green Croydon thanked all Veolia and council staff who had worked well together during this period to provide a waste collection service. The council had received positive feedback from residents on the professionalism of HRRC staff when the centres reopened. There had been over 20,000 people visiting the HRRCs since reopening, however it was noted that those numbers were starting to drop.


The Cabinet Member raised concerns in relation to the budget gap as it was noted that this financial pressure would have an impact on staff and may require the council to start charging for services which it previously had not. The government was called upon to honour its commitment to fund covid-19 costs.


Members were provided with an update from the Cabinet Member for Environment, Transport & Regeneration (voting – Job Share) which outlined that the full range of enforcement activities would be resumed within the next two weeks; however, parking concessions for NHS and key workers would remain in place. A street space programme, similar to that of the Mayor of London’s, was being rolled out which reallocated road space for walking and cycling and supporting social distancing. To-date, Members were informed that there had been 13 point closures, ten footway widening programmes, 20mph extensions, speed awareness signs implemented and pop-up cycle lanes planned.


Considerable concerns were raised by the Cabinet Member on the impact of scrapping under-18 travel concessions. This scrappage had been imposed upon TfL by the government in its bailout agreement, however it was stressed that the impact of this policy on young people could not be underestimated. Members were advised that in Croydon it was estimated that it would impact 60,000 young people and whilst work was going on to understand the impact, Members were requested to speak out against the policy.


The Cabinet Member for Families, Health & Social Care informed Members that there had been no reports of covid-19 in special sheltered housing in the previous three weeks. Members were advised that the council continued to work closely with care homes to ensure strong infection controls were in place. Whilst it was noted that the council was under huge financial pressures due to covid-19, the Cabinet Member highlighted that staff had been working hard since 2010 following the austerity measures imposed upon them and that nationally there was a £6b shortfall in adult social care which desperately needed to be addressed.


The Cabinet Member for Safer Croydon & Communities extended their thanks to the voluntary and community sector and all the volunteers who had come forward during this period. It was noted that the emergency fund of £200k had been oversubscribed which demonstrated the scale of the work taking place in this sector to support residents.


Members were informed that the Violence Reduction Unit was focussing on the safety of young people and supporting the sustained drops in knife crime which had been seen during this period. The Family Justice Centre had moved to seven day working and the safe spaces campaign had been important to provide spaces for those suffering from domestic abuse. The Policy had seen increases in reporting of domestic violence which had shown the importance of this campaign.


The Cabinet Member for Economy & Jobs informed Members that the Discretionary Grants Scheme had been launched the previous week to support local businesses. It had been estimated that if every business in the borough applied then all businesses would receive only £500. As such, difficult decisions had been made to support key businesses outlined within the scheme. It was noted that charities were not eligible to apply for the grants as there were alternative schemes available to them. The council had, to-date, received 492 applications and businesses were encouraged to apply quickly as it was recognised the funding was limited.


Members noted that a huge amount of work was being undertaken to support businesses to reopen as it was recognised that a number of businesses would struggle to reopen with new requirements placed upon them in terms of ensuring appropriate space was provided and the behavioural changes required. It was noted, however, that debate was ongoing on whether to reduce social distancing rules to 1m.


The Cabinet Member advised Members that the Federation of Small Businesses would be hosting a round table on 19 June in Croydon, which the council would be participating in.


The Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure & Sport noted that leisure centres, libraries and the Fairfield Halls remained closed, however it was hoped that leisure centres and libraries would be able to reopen in the next month in line with government guidance. The council continued to encourage social distancing within parks and frontline officers who were patrolling the parks were thanked for their work.


The Cabinet Member thanked the Bereavement service for their hard work during a difficult time and for their continued compassion.


It was recognised that the cultural sector was an area which required support and the council was supporting this sector to move to digital options and had launched the culture support fund.


The Cabinet Member for Environment, Transport & Regeneration (non-voting – Job Share) stated that the regeneration team had been largely focussed on recovery and supporting businesses during this time. Members were informed that the development control team had seen a small dip in applications of 10%, however despite the change in working environment they were continuing to make decisions and the Planning Committee had resumed fortnightly meetings to ensure decisions were being made. In terms of strategic planning, the Cabinet Member advised that the Local Plan review continued and a cross party working group had been established to look at the future of the borough.


The Leader of the Opposition welcomed the UASC announcement and noted that Chris Philp MP had been lobbying for it for a number of years. Whilst it was noted that it had taken too long for the funding commitment, it was now in place and everyone involved was thanked for their work.


It was suggested that residents understood their own financial situations but there was a lack of transparency in terms of how the crisis was impacting the council. The Leader of the Opposition stated that everyone needed to understand the financial pressures being faced by the council so they could understand the long-term impact. It was requested that this detail be provided in a digestible format.


In response, the Leader informed Members that the July Cabinet meeting would take a report on the council’s finances which would be very transparent. The Leader urged the Leader of the Opposition to speak with the Chief Executive and Section 151 Officer ahead of the meeting to receive detail on the full implications. In response to further questions the Leader stated that if the government was happy for the MHCLG return to be published then it would be published. In the meantime, a summary of the return would be circulated to Members which contained more detail than the scrutiny report.


Concerns were raised that there were businesses within the borough that had not yet received grants in spite of the council recognising in the report that cash flow was integral to the long-term integrity of a business. Councillors expressed hope that the lessons of the business grants process had been learned and would be put in place for the discretionary grants scheme. In response, Members were requested to send the details of any businesses awaiting payment to the Section 151 Officer, however it was noted that the council had been congratulated for its diligence in allocating the grants as there had been fraudulent claims submitted. Furthermore, it was noted that some businesses were claiming that the council was not communicating with them when Cabinet Members had seen correspondence requesting further information which had not been supplied by the business.


In response to Member questions, it was noted that officers had been on the frontline responding to a global pandemic and so it had not been possible to hold a full diary of council meetings. This would be reviewed as the council’s response needs were reduced.


Members were informed that the council had taken its role in supporting care homes very seriously and had provided PPE to them before it was the council’s responsibility as it was not prepared to see residents exposed to the virus. Furthermore, the Cabinet Member for Families, Health & Social Care noted the government had not initially considered care homes fully and had failed to include care home deaths in its daily figures.


In response to concerns raised regarding a 16.5% increase in charges for Careline, the Cabinet Member for Families, Health & Social Care requested that details be shared with her and the Executive Director for Health, Wellbeing & Adults so it could be investigated thoroughly, as that approach was not in line with the ethos of the administration.


The Leader of the Council delegated authority to the Cabinet to make the following decisions:


RESOLVED: To note the report and the actions taken in response to the Covid-19 pandemi

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