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  • Writer's pictureandrew ferguson

Local government in lockdown: how Councils are coping with coronavirus

It's fair to say the past month has been a strange conclusion to my 30 year career with Fife Council and its predecessor. Technically on holiday since March 25th, I was nevertheless involved in the early stages of rearranging the affairs of the Council's decision making structures to cope with the lockdown.

A large part of councils' day to day activities operate under delegated powers to officers in any event: and to that extent, the main decisions to be made have been about what services local authorities can, and should, keep delivering. Health and social care is the obvious one: but councils have also had to adapt services like refuse and recycling collections to fit the current circumstances.

But what about all these committee decisions? How can councils keep rolling on without all those debates, speeches, and wafer-thin majority votes?

The truth is that, although the current crisis is unprecedented, there have been a few occasions where normal service has been interrupted. Back in 2010, I recall the heavy snowfalls meaning my colleague being stranded at home and my having to take a local bus through the snowdrifts from Glenrothes to Kirkcaldy. It seemed to take even longer than usual; and when I arrived, the entire committee were waiting for me so they could get started!

More recently, what was apparently officially known as Anticyclone Hartmut, but was generally called the Beast from the East, threw large amounts of white stuff at us in February 2018. The sheer suddenness of its onset - despite new-fangled yellow-amber-red weather warnings - did cause disruption to committee meetings across the country.

Partly as a result of such weather events, councils have long built emergency measures into their governance documents to allow decisions to be made and business to carry on. Often the Chief Executive, and other senior officers, are given decision-making powers where committees are either unable to meet or are in recess. Such powers are usually limited to those decisions that need to be taken urgently - they're not meant for day to day business.

In Fife, we also had, tucked away in a dusty corner of our List of Committee Powers, provision for an Emergency Sub-Committee, comprising the Co-Leaders of the Administration, the Provost, and the Leader of the Opposition. Given the much smaller numbers required, it has its attractions for decision-making by Zoom or even in a socially distanced committee room.

Needless to say, the Scottish Government has also been grappling with these issues: both on its own behalf and in relation to local government. The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 is now law, and contains, in Schedule 6, many useful provisions to try to help decision-making for councils in lockdown. Included in these are relaxations in relation to some procedures around miscellaneous licensing; extension of time limits for freedom of information requests; and, in parts 3 and 4 of the Schedule, provisions about publication of documents and local authority meetings.

The latter provisions are particularly welcome, if they allow council committees to go ahead. Dispensing with the need for agendas and reports to be physically available are probably more crucial in that regard than the restriction on public attendance if said attendance causes a risk of infection from coronavirus, given the relatively low attendance at most council committee meetings.

However, there remains an issue with how, practically, some committees can continue to operate. Fife will not be the only council to have committee rooms that are only just big enough for its larger committees. Will councillors be rotated, so that a bare quorum of them turn up to enable social distancing?

In regulatory matters such as planning, there are other requirements that could potentially cause an issue. The Chief Planner, John McNairney, has been quick to act to relax some of the usual requirements so that Scotland's development industry can keep some semblance of forward movement. Regulations have now been brought in, for example, to suspend the need for physical pre-application consultation; to do away with the requirement for local review bodies to meet in public; and the need for developers to produce physical copies of environmental impact assessments. Mr McNairney has also undertaken that his staff will turn around requests for amended schemes of delegation as quickly as possible, allowing more decisions to be taken by officers.

Whilst all of this is welcome news to developers, it's not clear as yet what effect it will have on those wishing to oppose development. Further blogs will explore not only this, but how councils are adapting to the 'new normal' when it comes to decision-making.

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