A report from Councillor Archie Dryburgh MBE, APSE Scotland Vice Chair and Dumfries and Galloway councillor, on the action the Authority has taken throughout COVID-19.
After speaking with Paul O’Brien, CEO APSE, I asked if it would be useful to do a small report on what a rural authority was doing, what steps it had taken to protect the public, the businesses and the infrastructure in Dumfries and Galloway so that we would get an understanding and perhaps be able to share some of our experiences with the wider APSE family.
I have never written a report in such an unusual time however, what I must say is that if it wasn’t for the Council, her partners, the communities who we are supporting, and the communities who are supporting us, we would be in a much worse position than where we are now and I am fairly certain this would be the case across the whole of the United Kingdom.
As a father of two daughters who work in care homes, I have never been so afraid of what this pandemic could do to my family. When one considers the quick spread of the virus as well as shortages in PPE, the response of our care staff has been has been nothing short of exceptional.
But for a small amount of time I would like to focus on the role of the Council and its partners. Dumfries and Galloway is 120 miles wide and 40 miles deep. It runs from Port Patrick in the West to Ewes in the East. It has a population of circa 150,000 and the biggest employers in therRegion are the Council and the NHS.
We cannot of course forget the key workers in the transport industry, the agricultural industry, the retail (especially food) industry and what their workers are doing and supplying for us. Our Emergency Services - Police, Fire and Rescue and Ambulance Services - continue to play a fantastic role in supporting and looking after our communities.
All meetings in council have been suspended and all major decisions are now being made by a COVID-19 Sub Committee, which was agreed on the Friday prior to the lockdown that we all find ourselves in now. A call to support went out from our Partners in Third Sector Dumfries and Galloway (TSDG) and hundreds of volunteers came forward to support charities that were looking after the vulnerable. Major employers in the area put their staff on stand-by to assist their communities, such as Magnox Chapelcross, who have helped charities such as the Food Train deliver shopping to the most vulnerable in our area.
Business Rates Relief Grant
With the lockdown came the unprecedented requirement to look after our SME’s. In Dumfries and Galloway, 40% of the work force are either self-employed or in a one/two-person business. Shutting the businesses down was a very difficult decision for Government, but the response of ensuring that a grant could be made available to support those businesses during this time had to be arranged by the Council.
Sometimes we forget how important the administration of the Council actually is. During this pandemic, the back office staff were quickly moved to either home working or working with social distancing available at offices across the Region. The administration of the grant for business rate relief had paid out £6.2 million in the first 17 days of the set-up, thus protecting as best we could approx. 560 SMEs in the region for at least a certain amount of time. The HMRC had also asked us to support the furlough payments to staff and, although I do not have an exact figure, this has at least eased the suffering of those who have stopped working because of the virus. All local authorities in Scotland were given the task of administrating the rates relief grants and dependant on cost of rates either got a £10k or £25k Grant.
I have to say that the funding made available for this from the Scottish government was delivered swiftly to the Council.
Economic Development Support
Dumfries and Galloway Council is working with the South of Scotland Enterprise to look at what support they can give to both us and the Scottish Borders Council to ensure businesses can bounce back from this. Our Deputy leader has a teleconference on a regular basis to see what support they can give to those SMEs that will struggle. Understanding that this initially was about bringing more economic development into the south of Scotland, we believe their focus should, at this moment, be on sustaining what we have during this period.
Council Tax Holiday
The public were advised of a council tax holiday if they found themselves in cash flow difficulty, so a three-month council tax holiday was implemented. This will of course need to be reviewed and paid back at a future date.
Staff from non-essential services were asked to volunteer for other tasks in the Council and this was agreed by our management and trade unions to see us through the timeslot of the coronavirus. We had leisure and sport staff volunteering for work with waste teams, administrative roles, supporting social workers and we also had staff work for the small local PPE industry.
Leisure and Sport
Back in 2009, Dumfries and Galloway only had one leisure and sport trust that was run in Annandale and Eskdale. The then Labour administration brought this back in house and are we glad that we did. My understanding from other colleagues is that those trusts in other local authority areas are now finding it difficult to have the cash flow that they need and are asking councils to support them. With not having that headache we could redeploy our staff into other areas as suggested before.
Waste Collection and Disposal.
Owing to the virus, our Household Waste Recycling Plants were closed so that we could focus on the collection of household waste. This is a very important job during the pandemic as waste needs to be dealt with robustly and consistently across the area. With only three major towns in the region - Dumfries, Stranraer and Annan have over 10,000 people - we have 83 communities with less than 3,000 people and this does not include the more rural farms and small building groups in the area. Our waste collection and disposal service needed to be prioritised.
Our in-house fleet maintenance team has been magnificent; ensuring not only our waste wagons are kept on the road but our fleet that support delivery of meals to school children and vulnerable people both at home and at school for those that are children of key workers happens. We are currently in the process of a total new fleet procurement -26 vehicles with our APSE Partners - as our youngest waste wagon is 8 years old now. We have 11 buses on the road keeping our most remote communities connected. Again, these are being used to deliver food parcels to those areas. On 8 April, 1119 deliveries were made, and on top of that 1964 meals were delivered by Council staff to those most in need.
Parks and Cemeteries
Our parks remain open as they allow members of the public to walk and exercise as long as social distancing can be kept. All parks, apart from a few smaller ones owned by housing authorities, are under the control of the Council. The importance of parks cannot be underestimated, and APSE has long supported the need for more investment in outdoor play areas and parks. This crisis has surely given Government the opportunity to see this requirement.
Cemeteries are run by the council whilst cremations are done by a private company. There is only one crematorium in Dumfries and Galloway and that is at Collin just to the East of Dumfries. Families need to go to Ayr if they are in the west of the region for the nearest crematorium, and sometimes those in the east use Carlisle Crematorium. Burials and cremations are at a ratio of 4 to 1 in Dumfries and Galloway and we will need to consider what we do in the future about this as it is becoming harder and harder to get land suitable for burials owing to environmental issues. We will need to also consider the best route for this in the future particularly in the west of the region. From 08 April, funeral directors will have access to 92 internments per day across the region. We of course hope that we do not need to use them all.
I suggested early on that the number of volunteers that have come forward to support our third sector and NHS partners has been, similar to the rest of the country, fantastic. However, to organise such a huge amount of volunteers in such a short space of time we relied on our third sector partners to administrate this. After some initial teething problems, this was quickly rectified again thanks to both Council and third sector employees working in partnership.
The Council, having responded to national emergencies before such as Foot and Mouth in 2001, quickly responded to the need of the region and set up a COVID-19 Cell, which includes a strategic communication network for Council staff. The Council is also working with NHS D&G, Police Scotland V division, Scottish Fire and Rescue, Scottish Ambulance Service and our many other partner agencies to ensure that responses are quick and as effective as they can be to whatever issue arises.
Council staff have been helping community resilience groups set up across all of our towns and villages to look after the need of their most vulnerable; working with day centres to ensure our older generation have meals on wheels, those with medical needs have their supplies and also those who are lonely have a phone call.
Regionally we have set up teams that will support those that that require shielding from domestic abuse. We have been working with our registered social landlords ensuring that those at risk have somewhere to go should it be needed.
Our registered social landlords have stopped evictions in line with legislation but have also gone a step further and are only moving those that can be housed straight away that are in not fit for purpose accommodation, they continue to support their tenants with area support teams.
This is a bird’s eye view by an elected member of the response by our Council during this pandemic. I do not have all the information other than what I have seen, the daily briefings and the discussions by Skype when our group have a call on a Monday morning.
It is apparent however that the role that local authorities have played during this period cannot be underestimated. Our staff, our partners and our communities needed an organisation to step up to the plate and take control of what is a very unusual period. The local population, through their incredible volunteering efforts, have stepped up to the plate to support the lead role in which councils have taken, and our partners are relying on our assets and infrastructure to deliver what they must do.
I will also say at this stage, that I am sure that I have missed many other pieces of work carried out by our local authority, and apologise for doing so.
I have no doubt that APSE will be recording, researching and reporting the work of all our councils across the UK without whom the infrastructure would quite simply fall apart and bring nothing but confusion and chaos across the land.
As an elected member and as a member of the National Council for APSE, I want to thank all of our staff, partners and volunteers in every council area, for the role they have played, and still are playing, in trying to defeat this invisible enemy.