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Agenda item

Review of COVID-19 Response and Recovery

To consider the key organisational and service related lessons learnt arising from the Council’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


40.1          The report of the Head of Corporate Services, circulated at Pages No. 133-163, provided Members with an overview of the key organisational and service-specific learning points arising from the Council’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Members were asked to consider the report.

40.2          The Head of Corporate Services advised that the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the Council had been unprecedented; there was no textbook response and it had been a very fluid situation for many months.  Pages No. 134-135, Paragraph 2.1 of the report, explained that the Council was fortunate to already have some foundations in place to support the response and recovery, for instance, the Growth Hub – set up in 2018 - meant that the Council already had a fantastic relationship with the local business network which had stood it in good stead for the provision of business advice; similarly, the Council had an excellent relationship with Places for People which had been important for the recovery of the Tewkesbury Leisure Centre and the unique set-up of the Public Services Centre had helped to facilitate a multi-agency response.  It was also noted that staff were the Council’s greatest asset and the ‘can do’ culture had been vital throughout the pandemic.  Furthermore, the Council’s excellent financial management framework, supported by the technically strong Finance team had enabled the quality of financial monitoring and reporting to be maintained despite the added complexities. 

40.3           In responding to the challenges, a number of learning opportunities had arisen and the key points were outlined at Pages No. 135-137, Paragraph 3.1 of the report.  Pre-COVID-19 it would not have been considered possible for all staff to work from home, all Committee meetings to be held virtually, £30m of business grants and £400,000 Council Tax support to be administered and 5,000 business visits to take place as well as continuing to deliver core priority services; however, out of adversity had come the motivation, creativity, doggedness and goodwill of staff who had adapted by being redeployed and working additional hours etc. for the residents and communities within the borough.  It had become apparent from an early stage that individual services would be overwhelmed by certain aspects of the response, therefore, key cells had been created each with a clear remit: communications, business, community and High Street recovery.  This had been replicated at a county level to ensure there was a joined-up approach.  A Management Team Plus group had also been created comprising the Corporate Leadership Team, cell leads and Operational Manager from each service area and that team had met daily for many months.  Technology had been fundamental to the response in terms of enabling staff to work from home and staff and Members had been required to adapt quickly to using software such as Microsoft Teams – which had not been well-used by staff when it had initially been rolled-out pre-pandemic.  Members were advised that the move to home working had happened at speed and the longevity of the pandemic had quickly identified that staff resilience varied between individuals and teams so it had been essential to provide additional HR and organisational support. The HR team had already provided support around mental health and wellbeing pre-COVID-19 which had been a good starting point.  In terms of customers, they had no choice but to engage with the Council in different ways – visitors to the Council Offices were minimal and the Advice and Information Centres (AICs) had been closed – and it was now known that customers could, and wanted to, engage online.  Communications had been critical throughout and the COVID-19 microsite had been created to prevent the Council’s main website being overwhelmed.  Staff briefings had been held virtually and staff surveys had been undertaken on a regular basis.  Social media had been a key tool, not only for the Council’s messages but to promote those of other key stakeholders.  Whilst in response mode it was also important to think about recovery which had led to the development of the corporate COVID-19 Recovery Plan.

40.4          Pages No. 137-138, Paragraph 4.1 of the report, set out the key learning points by service area and these included: staff responsiveness – services had acknowledged how staff had adapted to new technology and roles and had supported each other through the challenging times; staff resilience – a number of staff who had been redeployed had been faced with challenging conversations and additional support had been required for those operating in the community and business cells in particular; business intelligence – this was a potential area for improvement which would be looked at by the Business Transformation team in terms of using business intelligence across service areas rather than working in silos; legislation and guidance – a plethora of new guidance and legislation had needed to be interpreted across all areas including virtual meetings, health and safety and business grants etc. a lot of which was complex and lacking clarity; innovation – many services had to think of different ways to continue to provide effective service delivery, for example, use of videos and photographs to support planning applications, switching from paper to electronic storage, online forms and virtual inductions for new staff; additional resources – given the impact of the pandemic and that the Council was a relatively small organisation, it had been necessary to employ temporary staff and contractors, both for COVID-19 related activities and to backfill staff that had been redeployed.

40.5           A Member indicated that he felt the staff response to the pandemic had been tremendous and they should be very proud of the work carried out.  He knew of several business which he was sure would no longer exist if it was not for the speed at which they had received the government business grants.  He was pleased to see it noted that, whilst Members had embraced the use of new technology, it had not been easy for everyone and further training would be welcomed.  Another Member noted that a Communications Officer had been employed for a two year period during the pandemic and he questioned whether there were any plans to make that a permanent role.  The Head of Corporate Services advised that it had been put forward as a potential growth item to be considered by the Corporate Leadership Team.   A Member was amazed to see that the new microsite had been developed in only a week and he felt that congratulations should be passed on to whoever had achieved that. 

40.6           With regard to Page No. 151, lesson learnt reference 37, a Member asked for further explanation of the current process for advertising planning applications and how that might change in the future.  In response, the Head of Development Services advised that the Council currently advertised planning applications via a notice which was displayed on site, in accordance with the Statement of Community Involvement.  This had caused a problem during the pandemic and had highlighted the need to review the Statement.  Many authorities used neighbour notification whereby they sent a letter to people living adjacent to a development so that was an alternative which would be considered.  A Member queried whether business applications would be included and the Borough Solicitor explained that all planning applications must be publicised in accordance with the Statement of Community Involvement – if a neighbour notification system was introduced, that would be used for all types of application, including business premises.  A Member suggested this would be reverting back to the process which was used previously and the Borough Solicitor clarified that the Council had used neighbour notification alongside display of a site notice in the past but had subsequently decided to use only the site notice display.  It was noted that the majority of other authorities used neighbour notification so that was potentially what the Council could do instead.  A Member drew attention to Pages No. 151-152, lesson learnt reference 39, which stated it had been difficult to access paper records and he asked what this related to and how the problem would be overcome.  In response, the Head of Development Services explained that a number of old planning records were retained at the depot; whilst they were in the process of being digitalised, there was a limit to what could be achieved within current resources.  All Councils were trying to digitalise the local land search system so work was being undertaken with the Land Registry on timescales and part of that would be understanding the support around commissioning scanning of the planning records in order to become paperless.

40.7           Having considered the information provided, it was

RESOLVED          That the key organisational and service-related lessons arising from the Council’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic be NOTED.

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