'The relationship and communication between the leader, the chief operating officer, and across to the director of public health is more important than ever'

Cllr Keith Aspden, Leader, York City Council

York was moved from enhanced support to being an area of intervention.

How was your relationship with Central Government during this transition, what was your learning from that and how would advise other council leaders going through this process?

The communication from Central Government was clumsy and poor. There were suggestions from civil servants that York should go into further restrictions and when the tier system was introduced, civil servants then suggested that the city should go into Tier tworestrictions. Initially, this was communicated to senior officers by civil servants, but with no official confirmation. However, it wasn’t until later in the day that it was confirmed via a tweet by a Conservative MP. Therefore, the restrictions were confirmed on Twitter before directors of public health and council officers were formally notified.

The need for a better system to send updates, particularly to directors of public health, has been fed back through to Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), even if it is only an update at short notice. This would enable councils to have advice and recommendations for local communities and businesses as announcements were made. Relationships have now been built with the DHSC Regional Convenor, which has helped act as a channel to feedback frustrations back to  DHSC However, there continues to be limited official communication between central government and local government.

Therefore, the advice that can be given regarding communication is to have regular catch ups with the director of public health, via formal and informal methods. In York, one method of communication between the senior leadership team is via the Outbreak Control Advisory Board. A close relationship across the board has been developed and this has enabled a good standard of briefings to members of the board.

What was your learning internally with relationships within your council during this transition, and what advice would you give to leaders on those?

The relationship and communication between the leader, the chief operating officer, and across to the director of public health is more important than ever. Engagement with key stakeholders, such as: universities, hospitals, clinical commissioning groups, GPs and other partnerships is absolutely vital. In York, partnership groups have been meeting far more to share concerns and identify areas of further collaboration. This, and the work in the Local Resilience Forum, has been stronger and more effective than it had been before the pandemic; work on shared priorities is more productive as a result. There is a shared objective to hold on to the progress made on these partnerships, and use it as a framework to tackle other challenges in the city – for example, climate change.

There is a risk in that senior officers and executive members are well informed due to their position within the organisation and ability to engage regularly with communications, like press releases, but other councillors or stakeholders might not feel as involved as they should be. In order to ensure the council’s wider engagement, maintaining business as usual has been a priority, so elected members can be kept updated via their respective committees for instance. This is a challenge due to capacity, but also due to the guidance frequently changing - there is a need to work at a pace and under pressure, which would not normally be sustained for so long.

One of the requirements of a local outbreak plan that is particularly key is that need for democratic oversight. What did your council put in place to ensure that?

York established an Outbreak Management Advisory Board early into the pandemic and livestreamed meetings to ensure wider engagement from stakeholders in the city and to be transparent on any key decisions made. These meetings have been held at least monthly, increasing them to weekly as needed in response to the changing guidance.

Throughout the pandemic, it has been important to not only bring partners together, such as the police and fire service, but to ensure partnership working improves what is delivered on the ground. To achieve this, there needs to discussions on an officer to officer level, but also on a senior level, so there is an opportunity to challenge partners and build relationships.

Communications opportunities to engage cannot be missed. The council’s request for communications lines and statements have increased, which has meant guidance is being read and then immediately developed into a public statement. The need to be a constant expert is a lot to juggle. Working together and ensuring things like virtual decision making is set up very has helped with this.

As a councillor you have a very active public facing role in your local community in a uniquely challenging time. What would you highlight from your experiences with community engagement while going through the process of becoming an area of intervention?

At a city level, York has developed a one-year Recovery and Renewal Strategy, which progress is reported on at the public meeting of the executive every month. City of York Council has also outlined its intention to develop a 10 Year City Plan with key partners, acknowledging that local authorities are not able to solve long term issues in isolation, due to COVID-19 related financial pressures.

Officers have adapted these plans, for instance putting new transport and economy structures in place. An example of this is new pop-up spaces that have been provided in the city centre. An area behind York Minster has been adapted to allow people to shop locally and adhere to social distancing regulations. This work has continued to be developed, whilst other work streams have had to stop. The decision to develop a 10 Year City Plan was made with a focus on building on York’s unique strengths, whilst offering local communities the opportunity to shape how the city develops in the future.

A leader is still a ward councillor and a person who is trusted and accountable locally. It is important to not lose focus of this role and use community / ward budgets as part of the local COVID-19 response. In my ward, just as one example, nearly £3000 was given to an arts charity to enable them to safely work with local schools and care homes. The ability to support groups like this and to see people come together to help in the community has been fantastic and part of the overall success of the city’s response to the pandemic.

On reflection, what are the top three lessons you have taken from your experience in responding to the local outbreak in your area. Is there anything you would have done differently from what you know now, and why?

  1. Bring partners together and show residents and businesses that you are working together with that long- term goal in mind.
  2. Communications is essential. Communication to households, residents and businesses has been critical in our response, and getting this up and running as soon as possible is fundamental to ensuring a successful response.
  3. Focus on the outcomes - All council leaders will have unique strengths and opportunities in their area. There should be a focus on the goals, not getting distracted by the day to day. Work like York’s 10-year plan absolutely needs to carry on at pace, in order to demonstrate to the business community and residents how strengths of the city can be built upon. York has undergone many changes historically, but has kept reinventing itself to overcome these challenges. There is no doubt this can be repeated by building on strengths such as York’s history, heritage sector, culture, and education.

We are developing a sector led improvement programme for councils, bringing local experience as well as making the links between local, regional and national engagement more effective. This is a complex area and we have limited resources. What do you feel the LGA should focus this programme on?

Local Authorities are time poor. The thinking needs to be about how to get the best outcomes by learning the mechanisms available to a leader and the council. For instance, learning about the role of the DHSC regional staff in supporting local teams to keep communications up to date with announcements, and how to be ‘geared up’ for new pressures are all useful. With emerging challenges, tips and advice on relationships leaders might find helpful, such as regional and central government links, would be valuable moving forward.

In the response to COVID-19 specifically, the budget implications should be considered alongside when discussing the latest guidance and regulations.