The Strength of a Community in a Pandemic

Leaders at Local Authorities. Leadership Through the Coronavirus Crisis

In this edition of our Councils Futr Spotlight Series, we caught up with Trevor Scott, the Chief Executive of Wealden District Council, about lessons learnt from the pandemic.

Please could you give a brief intro to yourself and Wealden District Council?

“My name is Trevor Scott and I am the Chief Executive of Wealden District Council. I’m a lawyer by trade, however I’ve worked within the public sector for most of my career and have been with Wealden for the past 15 years, the last two serving as Chief Executive.  

As for Wealden District Council, we are one of the largest district councils in the country, spanning the largely rural space between Eastbourne and Tunbridge Wells. We’ve got a population of 160,000 residents spread between five main market towns and rural areas. 

Being a rural community primarily drives how we operate as an organisation in challenging times, in terms of meeting the demands and needs of generally an ageing population within an area of relative affluence with high house prices but challenges with lower wages.”

What lessons have you learnt from the pandemic? 

“One of the lessons we’ve learned – and one that has been reinforced to us throughout the pandemic – is the power of our community and the power of our partnerships.

We are extremely fortunate within Wealden to have very engaged and impactful Town & Parish Councils and voluntary sectors and we work extremely well with East Sussex County Council.”

How did you adapt to the pandemic as it progressed?

“Right from the word go we developed a community hub and response team. We had staff transferred and re-deployed from different departments into customer-facing roles, trained and ready to receive calls from members of the public to deal with their various requests.

We established a network of connections so that we could triage incoming calls depending on the nature of the request. Examples of requests include, where people were struggling to gain access to food, to medicines, where they were simply lonely and needed to be contacted because they were anxious or concerned, did they need pets walking etc.

We have a very strong network of volunteers in local communities who we could then direct those sorts of requests through to in order to enable fast support to people when needed. This made a real difference to those who required support.”

What key challenges did you face? 

“Speed of change was always a challenge. As a local authority, we needed to create systems as the pandemic was evolving and as a result of the government’s continued updated guidelines.  

A second key challenge was providing vital support to individuals and the local economy. Over the last seven months we have paid out nearly £40 million to local Wealden businesses which was a completely brand-new process we had to administer. In terms of the economy we’ve seen increased workloads, claims for benefits, pressure on housing services have increased, and support to provide for people who were rough sleeping has shot up. 

As you would expect, there have been quite significant pressures on our services because quite often we are the place where people go when they are not sure where else to go. We are there to support people when they need us the most. 

On top of all of that, as an organisation we are having to move into a position of almost exclusively working from home, and so very early on we had to make sure our IT infrastructure was in and secure enough to enable home and remote working. We had to make sure that our staff felt confident and supported enough to work remotely and continue to provide the vital services which they do. 

Juggling all of those in one go, against the backdrop of a huge amount of concern and anxiety as a result of a pandemic, was naturally a huge challenge for us as a leadership team to respond too.”

How do you envisage the council of the future?

“Naturally the pandemic has changed a lot of what we once perceived normal. On the topic of remote working, traditionally we’ve always looked at recruitment within 30 miles of our headquarters, but now after exploring WFH we can realistically open that radius up to pretty much anywhere, certainly within the country, but hypothetically the world! There are many jobs where we do not need that physical presence within the office, so there will be a huge and necessary shift towards far more flexible working. 

And on that work shift, one of the really exciting opportunities which has come out of the pandemic is the response of local people to want to volunteer and to give back to their communities. We had more people volunteering than we did people actually needing help! 

Previously, people have been less prepared to allocate that time and if we can really tap into that sense of community, that sense of belonging, as we have done during this pandemic, then there are real opportunities for social gains.  A return, almost, to that sense of community of the past as it were.”

Let’s touch briefly on the commercial activities you have been involved in as a council. Are you able to talk a little into that? 

“A few years ago now, we faced up to the reality that we have decreasing financial support and a cap placed on our tax raising powers. As a result, our income streams have been limited as an organisation.

As all businesses are in these situations, we were faced with two choices: do we cut back on what we offer, or do we reinvent ourselves and look at the other ways in which we can provide our services. 

We felt there was a real opportunity to diversify into more commercial private sector activities. However, as an organisation, we took the view that we didn’t want to be directly competing with the private sector, and so we sat down and looked at opportunities that our local residents might expect a local council to do but that also generate an income stream for us. 

We have got a number of projects on the go which create new employment, new community facilities but crucially also generate an income for us as a council. For example, we are looking at town centre regeneration which will help us build new facilities for the community, potentially looking at a brand new sports park (again generating rental income – from hiring out to users) which compliments the benefits of providing facilities for health and well-being; as well as building new GP surgeries to deliver much needed infrastructure for our residents. 

It’s a really exciting way in which councils have evolved and we are extremely pleased to be at the forefront of this movement and to receive the recognition we have for it.”

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