The end of the EU transition period is adding to the pressures on councils as they continue to battle the pandemic.
As we start a new year with a new national lockdown, councils face many challenges in the coming days and weeks.
With infection rates rising out of control across the country, driven by the new and more transmissible variant of COVID-19, the Government is right to act, albeit a national lockdown will be tough for many.
Councils will continue to step up to support residents – especially those who are more vulnerable – as well as local businesses, schools and colleges.
There are reasons for optimism, though – not least, the approval of a second COVID-19 vaccine, alongside the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that was approved in December. The first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was administered to 82-year-old Brian Pinker, in Oxford, on 4 January.
The ongoing rollout of a mass vaccination programme continues to offer our best hope of an early return to ‘normal’, and there has been an encouraging and steady start to what will be the largest programme ever undertaken in the UK.
Councils are working closely with their health service colleagues on this unprecedented rollout, to ensure everybody can receive these life-saving vaccines as soon as possible, in line with the priority list.
The LGA continues to emphasise that local knowledge and expertise will be crucial in encouraging everyone from all parts of the community to get vaccinated. Councils’ unique relationship with the people they represent means they are well placed to reach out to those in the priority groups and beyond.
We will need to see weekly vaccine rollout figures broken down by region and local authority. This will ensure the fairest possible distribution and help target support at communities and neighbourhoods where take-up is slower, in partnership with the NHS and others. In the face of exponential growth in transmission of this virus, it is also important that vaccination plans are accelerated.
Driving strong local action amid this latest national lockdown will add further pressure to already overstretched council staff and their budgets.
Extra government funding and financial measures have helped, but the Government must bring forward a further funding package that addresses the remaining pressures councils face in this financial year.
Meanwhile, the end of the EU transition period and the start of the new trade arrangements have added to the already significant pressures councils are facing.
As we continue to support our communities against COVID-19, the LGA has raised with the Government the pressures on key services, such as our regulatory services, as a result of new checks on goods and the support needed for business – for example, new export certificates.
“Councils are well placed to reach out to those in the vaccination priority groups”
At the same time, these colleagues remain on the frontline of our work on the pandemic, and continue to deliver important statutory services such as food hygiene and trading standards. There are already skills shortages in these professions and councils are reporting severe difficulties in recruiting new staff.
Since the referendum on EU membership in 2016, we have worked consistently with government on the opportunities and risks to councils and local communities of Brexit.
There are opportunities – for example, to reform procurement and state-aid rules to provide better support to local economies, and to design the successor arrangements for EU funds around the needs of local economies and places.
In November’s Spending Review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said funding for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund would ramp up over time to reach an average of £1.5 billion a year. He also announced funding to help local areas prepare for the introduction of the fund, with communities to pilot programmes and new approaches.
However, the capacity challenges mentioned above, with the confluence of multiple pressures on councils generally – and our regulatory services specifically – add up to a tough start to 2021.
It has been an extraordinary year. We have seen the very best of local government demonstrated every day as we protect residents and businesses and keep normal services running as well as possible in each stage of the pandemic.
I am hugely proud to work alongside you all. The country and our communities are lucky to have local leaders and dedicated council staff who continue to go the extra mile to help them through this crisis.
There is, no doubt, a long way left to go and the challenges that lie ahead remain daunting.
The past few days and weeks have yet again proved that the problems posed by this pandemic are unpredictable and can escalate at any moment. But I know, as a local government family, we will continue to face them together.