Think Local (Britain in Lockdown, Part 6)

In late April, I interviewed Chris White, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on St Albans District Council. Chris is also a county councillor. We spoke about the challenges COVID-19 has created for the district and for the council, how the crisis has reshaped working patterns, and why he’s concerned about the future funding of the council.

Tell me about a normal day in your work on the council.

It varies every day. I try to keep Monday mornings free, preferably all of Monday, but I’m not always successful. On Friday mornings, there will be party political work. The rest of the week is a wacky and complicatedly intertwined mix of district and county council meetings. Sometimes I go into London for Lib Dem meetings. I’m both a district and a county councillor, which is not unusual.

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Liberal Democrats at Saint Albans Cricket Club

So what services do the district and the county councils provide?

The district council provides things like leisure services, planning applications, licensing of taxis, even zoo licensing! There is actually a zoo in St Albans- a lot of people would regard it as a petting farm but it counts as a zoo in the legislation. Looking after business, which is one of the things we’re very keen to do- there is a Business Improvement District, which is not part of the council but has connections with it. Tourism and waste collections1 are also a function of the district council.

By contrast, the county council deals with all the highways, technically including parking but it delegates parking to the districts, and it doesn’t want it back! Adult care services, childcare services, school planning and libraries also fall under the remit of the county council.

How has the provision of services changed as a result of the lockdown?

Well, library services have been terminated and all their staff have been redeployed to COVID-19 related work. We terminated leisure- we had to- so all leisure centres are shut, and all of the museums are shut too. At one point, against my better judgment, we were persuaded to close cemeteries, which I think is a perverse thing to do at this time of all times. Anyway, the government’s relented on that.

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A reduced market, still providing produce and cooked food for shoppers.

The district’s parks are still open. We were under enormous pressure from our opposition (charming people) to shut the parks and the market. I think everyone now agrees that we’d go stark staring mad if we didn’t have the parks! But we’ve still had to make subtle changes. For example, at the end of my road there’s a park with a small gate. I kept saying ‘please leave it open’ but people ignored the message, and in fact a runner closed it directly in front of me, although I asked her to leave it open. So I had to touch the metal gate unnecessarily, and the virus thrives on metal surfaces. Really stupid behaviour. So we had to take the gate off! It’s a small refinement, but an important one. We also had to make sure that the reopened market2 maintains social distancing.

In St Albans, there isn’t a problem with the parks, really. We have occasional reports of people in the parks, but are they within two metres of each other? Are they unrelated to each other? The answer is almost invariably no.  There can be some rather unhelpful ‘vigilante’ complaints from over-zealous members of the public.

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Verulamium Park remains open.

Yeah, I’ve seen evidence of that too. The lockdown has been tough on people who don’t have gardens.

True. And if we’ve not been told to restrict something, by the county council or government legislation, then it’s not our place to second-guess it.

Obviously our electoral team have less to do at this time of year than they’d anticipated, so they’ve been drafted into Communities First to bolster their admin. Furthermore, 250 members of the county council have been seconded to the NHS. It’s a huge number, half the public health team.

Once the acute phase of this crisis is over, and lockdown measures are being gradually relaxed, what concerns do you have for the future?

[NOTE: since the time of interview, the government has changed its policy and agreed additional funding for district and county councils, partly as a result of pressure from local councillors across the country. However, St Albans council still faces a funding problem, and may run out of money in three weeks without additional support.]

I wasn’t that worried about four weeks ago, and now I’m very worried indeed. The government, at the start of the crisis, said ‘spend whatever you need to on COVID-19, and you’ll be reimbursed.’ I’ve been in local government too long to fully believe that, but it was a very clear message. The government has now largely reneged on that. So they’ll reimburse us for direct COVID-19 spending, which for the district council in particular isn’t very much- the county council’s spending is huge because of adult care.

However, the government won’t reimburse us for our loss of income. Successive governments have run away from reforming the local government taxation system, and have forced us to be funded in general not by tax but by other earnings like fees and charges, which includes car parking. Off-street parking is a money-spinner, but during the crisis it’s fallen to almost zero. Stevenage council took £8.50 in total from parking charges a few weeks ago. We’re giving free parking to NHS workers, we’re reducing rents, and of course leisure services have completely stopped.

As a result, we’re losing £150,000 per month because of COVID-19. Our budgets were tight enough anyway. So I’m very concerned about whether we’ll actually come out the other side of this at all, as a district. The county council, meanwhile, is spending an extra £46 million per month on care, and it’s getting £26 million back. So they are, for a different reason, in trouble as well. It’s absolutely crazy.

So, on a personal level, once the COVID-19 situation became critical, how did it change your work?

The initial phase was a little odd; I still went into the office for some meetings, and I was keen to do what was advised and decreed by parliament, rather than making it up as I went along. When the stay-at-home order was issued, all formal meetings went online immediately.

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In fact, the number of hours of meetings hasn’t changed very much. People do tend to move meetings more often and at shorter notice, which you wouldn’t do with physical meetings, because people have booked travel already and that kind of thing.

There’s an element of necessity in that, though, right? More people are having to be more flexible at the moment. Do you think people see the online meetings as less real, or take them less seriously?

Actually, some of them are better. For example, our political group meetings, which we usually have about once a month, which is the full group of Liberal Democrat councillors. We’re actually having meetings once a week at the moment, which would have been unacceptable in terms of commitment and dislocation beforehand3. Now, virtually the whole group is present at our weekly meetings.

What’s more, because on Zoom there’s a chat feature, instead of stray comments happening at the back of the room, they’re happening on the side of the screen. So the coherence of the meetings is better, and the participation is also better. And I hadn’t anticipated that at all. So some of our meetings are definitely better in quality as a result.

Do you think that will lead to changes going forward? Will some parts of council work stay digital?

I’m certain of it, absolutely one hundred percent. For example, I’m Vice Chair of the Health Scrutiny Committee, and our committee’s been very, very resistant to having meetings online. Myself and the Chair will regularly spend an hour travelling for a meeting lasting just over an hour. So we’re determined to make these meetings happen online. In this case, we all know each other, which I think is critical to making online meetings work. It’s cheaper for the council, and a more efficient use of our time.

The use of office space may also change as a result of all this. There may be a greater demand for shared working facilities locally in St Albans and less in London, for example! A lot of people can’t easily switch to home working because they need decent wi-fi, a decent computer, and a printer, which are things that not everyone has. I always did, because of the nature of the political beast, but many people won’t. But potentially they can use working facilities closer to home.

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What lessons do you think we can take from the handling of this crisis?

First of all, be prepared. It’s a pandemic, and some national research suggested that a pandemic was likely to require more ventilators and more PPE (personal protective equipment). Austerity has made this situation more difficult, which is a bit criminal really.

Secondly, don’t let Boris Johnson near any public statement. The amount of work he creates when he makes a statement is massive, because he doesn’t remember his brief, he goes off-piste, and therefore he says things which turn out not to be true. On the day the lockdown began, we had taxi drivers thinking they were going to be shut down, which hasn’t the case; Boris seemed to shut down off-licences, and that wasn’t the case either. So MPs like Daisy Cooper4 got an unbelievable amount of emails asking what was happening, and so did we on the district council.

Clearly Boris isn’t the right person to do this sort of work, but I think we need to get away from oral instructions by politicians. You can say ‘we’re going to have to shut society down, there’s going to be a number of changes’, and then it’s best to release the new regulations online. That way you can go and read the press releases, as people do when the chancellor releases his budget.

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Can we necessarily trust the media to parse that information well?

No, You can’t always trust the media to get it right, although often during this process they have done. Some of the media holding to account has been very impressive, actually, and from unexpected quarters, like the Sunday Times. However, nowadays people can go online directly, and read the necessary information themselves.

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1- waste disposal, however, is run by the county council.

2- although the market has reopened, only a small number of fresh produce and food stalls are currently operating.

3-  district councillors are not full-time staff and do not receive a salary, instead receiving an allowance of £5,730 per year as of 2020. Some council members receive an additional Special Responsibilities allowance if they lead committees or are part of the executive.

4-  Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans since the 2019 general election.

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