It is a real pleasure to see you all again, albeit through the spectrum of Microsoft for Business.
I know that I am far from alone in finding this new way of living and working challenging, but the lockdown restrictions are necessary as we work together to fight Covid-19 in our communities, standing (virtually) shoulder-to-shoulder with community groups, charities and more than 1,500 volunteers from across our district.
For me, it is this community spirit that has shone through all the adversity. And that includes the community spirit across all political lines within this group. Thank you all for your constant and unwavering support as we seek to ensure that our residents and our businesses are supported with strong and united leadership throughout this crisis.
I hope that the twice-weekly email updates from Karen and I have been helpful in keeping you informed about how the pandemic is affecting our district, and what we are doing to meet our three priorities which I set out at the beginning of the lockdown. As promised, our focus as a council remains:
- Protecting the health of our staff and our residents
- Maintaining our critical services
- Supporting our local businesses
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, that we are gaining recognition for the results of our work at both a national and a regional level.
If you will indulge me, I’d like to give a quick snapshot of just some of our fantastic work that is causing people to sit up and look at our council:
Since the lockdown started just over six weeks ago, we have:
- Maintained a full waste service. While some local authorities are struggling to keep their household waste collections running, we continue to collect a total of 80,000 black, silver, and green waste bins weekly.
- Urgent housing repairs are being completed within 24 hours and available staff are also working on void properties to ensure quick reletting.
- We continue to support an increased number of homeless and emergency housing cases, including offering all rough sleepers, known to us, assistance and accommodation.
- Our Customer Services Team is operating remotely providing support not just with their usual services, but by handling calls about council tax and NNDR benefits and rents, thus enabling our Revenue and Benefits team to deliver direct specialist support to customers affected by hardship.
To support our businesses, our Strategic Director for Growth, Paul Thomas, has been realigned to lead InvestSK with a special focus on business continuity and resilience. The leagues tables change weekly, but I am proud to be able to say that - as a result of the close working between InvestSK and the Council’s Finance and business rates teams - South Kesteven District Council constantly remains in the top 10% of councils for delivering much needed grant aid swiftly into the bank accounts of eligible businesses. To date, we have paid out £25.65 million to 2,115 businesses, which represents 81% 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.
On Friday, the Government announced a new discretionary fund to support businesses struggling in these difficult times that 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.
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, thanks to my friend and colleague Cllr Annie Mason, and the hard work of Paul Stokes and his team of redeployed staff who keep the hub operating for 11 hours a day, seven days a week. 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 volunteers across the district.
To support this work further, we swiftly established our Befriending Service, which has 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. I know that 18 of you have already volunteered to support this service and either have or are undergoing the necessary training. Thank you again for your continued commitment to our council and to our communities.
We do not have time for me to go through all of our achievements at a district and county level, but I can assure you that as well as updating you all twice a week, our staff are kept informed of key issues, and I am writing once a week to all three of our MPs.
Our Coronavirus webpage is regularly updated with any service changes, and I am providing our parish councils with a monthly newsletter to keep them informed. I know that many of you expressed concerns that some of our residents may not have access to the internet. Therefore, we have produced a special Covid-19 edition of SKToday, which will be delivered next week. It is a shorter edition, with a pure focus on providing the information our residents need to support them through this crisis.
In the interests of ensuring that our residents remain informed and that local democracy continues during the pandemic, I am extremely pleased that we will be hosting virtual committee and council meetings until September, starting with our Planning Committee on Tuesday 12 May, followed by Full Council on 14 May.
As I have already said, I cannot go through all of what we are doing to support our residents, but I am sure that you all appreciate the amount of hard work it has taken by our staff to deliver such a comprehensive and quality service. I would like to thank each and every one of them for their dedication, loyalty and support, and I am sure you will want to join me in doing so.
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 804 confirmed cases of Coronavirus; 24 care homes in isolation with 73 known cases; and sadly 153 people have lost their lives to the virus – 102 in hospital, 51 in care homes. We believe that two of these deaths are family members of two of our staff. Naturally, I have conveyed our sincerest and heartfelt condolences to those two employees. [PAUSE]
The Government is concerned that there may be about five waves and 30 mutations of Coronavirus. Contact tracing is being explored as a key action to control the spread of the virus, but the impact of Covid-19 is expected to continue through until April 2021.
That is quite a sobering thought. I do not envy colleagues in central Government, as they seek to find the right balance between protecting public health and supporting the economy.
Each step is a challenge as it is being taken in unknown and unchartered territory. There simply isn’t an instruction manual, and the biggest concern is that society is making its own decisions, travelling more on non-essential journeys, and not social distancing.
We anticipate that there may be some easing of restrictions this week, if the science shows that this is possible without jeopardising public health or our economy.
As you would expect, I am already working with our partners across the county and the region, 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. With this in mind, we continue to ensure that our voice is heard at the highest levels of Government as we seek the reassurance and the resource to fulfil our mission. You will be aware that the latest allocation of Government funding for local authorities, £1.64 billion, has resulted in £1.4 million in emergency funding for our council.
This crisis is far from over, but as we celebrate the 75th Anniversary of VE Day this week, let us draw from the resilience former generations have shown, remember our proud heritage, and ensure that we are fully prepared for life post Covid-19.