How local government has responded to Covid-19: community support

It became apparent very early on in the current crisis that a principle responsibility of local government during Covid would be ensuring those in our community needing help and support as a result of the outbreak received the assistance they needed. This response has looked very different in different local authority areas, but across the country councils are coordinating an incredible voluntary and community response supporting hundreds of thousands of people.

Whilst councils and our partners have always made provision to support the most vulnerable, the level of response seen to counter the impact of Covid-19 would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. All over 70s have been told to stay at home, the shielded population must self-isolate for 12 weeks, those who are symptomatic are helping stop the spread by staying indoors, whilst many people who have not necessarily been in financial difficulties previously are suddenly requiring advice and support. Added to this those already accessing support services whose needs have not suddenly gone away, and all councils are clearly coordinating this in the face of unprecedented demand.

All local authorities have stepped up and met this challenge – and indeed all were doing so before the government finally asked us to ensure such support was in place. What has varied has been the way councils have implemented this. In Trafford, it’s been fantastic to see a genuinely partnership-based approach, leveraging the enormous expertise of colleagues in the voluntary and community sector whilst working with other partners including the police, housing associations, schools and colleges, and health colleagues.

The overarching focus for us has been about the importance of place and working in localities. The council and other partners – with a special mention to Trafford Housing Trust – have worked to harness the skills and knowledge of community and voluntary organisations in each of our population centres. We have put funding in place and established the necessary governance and oversight to enable the mobilisation of six community hubs in each of our main population centres, along with a further satellite hub operated by the excellent Sale Moor Community Partnership. The pace at which this was achieved is remarkable: in just ten days, the Trafford Partnership mobilised the hubs and we were up and running – a project that would usually take us years to bring to life.

Critical to this was the establishment of a central community response line. We’re very fortunate in Trafford that our partners at the CAB were willing to provide this for us, using their existing phone number already known to many residents in need. Their role is to understand the needs of their caller and triage calls from across Trafford as appropriate: if support from volunteers is needed, it will come through to one of the hubs for action; if financial support and advice is needed, the CAB are well placed to advise. It’s worked brilliantly – the central line is taking several hundred calls a week, whilst the hubs are ensuring that those just wanting some practical help out and about in the community receive it quickly.

Of course central to all of this are the brilliant volunteers that have come forward to help. One of the bright spots in this crisis has been the way in which communities have come together and so many people have made offers of support. This was happening from the outset anyway, but by managing and coordinating this work through the community hubs we are able to make sure everyone in need of help gets it. That may be organising a food parcel – as the hubs have taken on much of the work of our local food banks – doing basic shopping, picking up prescriptions, or other assistance as required. This is made possible by the fact that so many local people have put their hands up to help. I’m so proud of the community spirit and concern for each other being shown by Trafford residents allowing people to reach out when needed, and I know this is being replicated across the country.

Such a huge, voluntary-led response necessarily costs money. We all appreciate the value of the hubs but whilst the council and others partners have contributed to get the hubs up and running, the future financial sustainability of the project is at risk. It’s for this reason that the Trafford Partnership last week launched our Trafford Crisis Fund. In a perfect world, place and locality based community and voluntary led hubs would be exactly the sort of anchor institutions the council would love to support on an ongoing basis, yet financial realities make this difficult. Ten years of ideologically-driven austerity meant things were challenging beforehand, and this has been exacerbated by the in-year costs of Covid-19, which for us in Trafford have left us with an estimated £25m funding gap, even after the government funding offered to councils so far is included.

The Crisis Fund, if successful, will allow us to maintain the community hubs for the foreseeable future. We know that for many people the financial impact of Covid-19 won’t yet have hit. It is clear that people will be feeling the effects of the outbreak in monetary terms for some time. That’s why we’re keen to keep the hubs up and running. Our recovery work needs to include this – a significant uplift to the advice and support offer we had in place in more usual times that has allowed local communities to shape the response needed in their area. Councils have wanted to see such a locality based way of working for years, and in Trafford we are now seeing the best of such an approach in action. The council and partners are using their influencing, coordinating and leadership roles to great effect, whilst those who are closest to their communities shape and deliver the support offer.

There’s a long road ahead, made more uncertain by the Prime Minister’s statement on Sunday evening. It’s reassuring to know then that the Trafford Partnership has been able to rely on our fantastic voluntary and community sector to help, and that so many people in our wonderful and caring community in Trafford are willing and able to volunteer. Their work has been greatly appreciated so far – and with confusion in Downing Street, these local solutions may well be need for some time yet.

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