Councils’ enforcement and compliance teams have been stretched thin in response to the pandemic.
As we approach the anticipated re-opening of many businesses on our high streets later this month, I wanted to reflect on the vital role councils’ regulatory services have played throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
There has been huge demand for such services in the past year, which has shone a light on the pressures on environmental health teams, for example, which have been largely hidden from view and have experienced significant cuts as a result of reductions to overall council funding. Environmental health, as well as trading standards, licensing and other teams working in the compliance and enforcement space, have been at the forefront of an array of COVID-19 activity, including enforcing business closures, supporting reopening, and the enforcement of covid-secure measures and local contact tracing.
There have been a number of challenges along the way, including tier ‘tourism’ and the sheer pressure of competing demands on officers. While general compliance with business closures has been high, there have been some grey areas – for example, around mixed retail, and debates over whether a Scotch egg counts as a substantial meal!
We know from our ongoing discussions with government that there has been a lot of interest at the highest political levels about what councils are doing to ensure compliance with covid rules. Our focus within the LGA has been to try to shape that focus into measures that are workable and practical on the ground.
For example, the LGA worked closely with government to ensure that funding earmarked for covid marshals could be used flexibly by councils in a way that would be most helpful for their areas.
We have also worked hard to push for changes to ensure councils have the right powers to tackle non-compliant businesses, which will be crucial as we move through the roadmap out of lockdown. While lockdown certainly hasn’t provided a break from compliance and enforcement activity, there is no doubt that work will escalate in the coming months.
Alongside our work to support councils with enforcement and compliance, including running a series of webinars, the LGA has been engaging with the Government on compliance issues on a regular basis, and encouraging it to highlight the good work councils are already doing.
Supported by government, the LGA has also developed a new online register called Environmental Health Together (EHT), to help councils experiencing staffing issues.
EHT is a register of professionals with relevant environmental health qualifications and experience, who have signed up to assist local authorities during the pandemic. It is free, and allows councils to search for candidates by location, skills and experience.
The LGA is also pushing for the pandemic to lead to long-term changes in the value and support provided to local regulatory services. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of ensuring resilience in these services, so they are there for us to draw on when needed. But the pipeline of officers is small, and the future uncertain.
The pandemic has highlighted how important local regulatory services are and the pressures they are under. So, we want to use this opportunity to push government to take the steps that are within its power to address this, including looking at longer-term funding options and ensuring a better understanding of the collective demands being made on these professions.