Julie James, Minister for Housing and Local Government
We are in the throes of a serious public health outbreak and all our lives are affected. How we respond will determine what sort of country we are when the current situation eases.
Local authorities and local communities are at the heart of how we respond to these difficult times. My Cabinet colleagues are making statements on two key services which local authorities deliver – social care and education. These are critical services in normal times and even more so in these abnormal ones. But local authorities are also responsible for a far wider range of relevant services.
I want to first acknowledge the efforts of those working in local authorities. We are fortunate to be able to call upon the very many committed and engaged people working in our councils, as well as in other public services and the third sector. This is never more so than in a crisis. Councils across Wales are putting in place contingency arrangements to ensure that services on which we all rely will continue to meet essential needs. Services changes will take place as the demand for services grows in the face of a reduced capacity to supply as the employees become isolated. Local authorities will need to make difficult decisions on what matters most. They are working closely with the third sector, planning to ensure that critical services to the most vulnerable can be delivered and new demands can be met.
COVID-19 requires a coordinated response and as I said in my statement last week, our public services are working closely together through long standing and effective arrangements. Social services and health services in particular are planning together how to respond as needs develop across Wales.
Welsh Government and local government are also working closely together. The Health and Social Services Minister briefed all local authority leaders early in March; and was able to hear and consider their response.
I have worked closely with the Leader of the WLGA, local authority political and professional leaders, to ensure that we have a shared understanding of the challenges which we face together; and of the steps we need to take together to overcome these. There are also clear and regular lines of communication with local government on specific services.
Hannah Blythyn has been in close contact with our three Fire and Rescue Authorities, and all of them have the resources and plans in place to respond in the usual ways. That will mean suspending some non-essential awareness and engagement work, but otherwise we are confident that the effects of the outbreak on the Service can be readily managed.
There will be potential for fire service staff to support NHS bodies during the outbreak. We will be discussing the detail with the FRAs and the NHS, and with firefighters’ unions who have legitimate concerns about their members’ health and wellbeing during the outbreak. However, there are some promising and innovative opportunities here, and we will make further announcements in due course.
Senior education officials are in regular contact with all directors of education by means of teleconferences and written communication, ensuring that they have the most up-to-date guidance for educational settings. In addition, the Welsh Government’s Director for Education now chairs regular stakeholder teleconferences, with local authorities involved. In a similar vein standing discussions are in place with social services directors and jointly with health boards.
There is also a key role for Community and Town Councils, making use of their local intelligence and networks and drawing on the vital work they do to inform and support their communities. They will know of local vulnerabilities or at-risk groups and individuals in their area, and be able to direct them to support. They can also alert those support networks to where help is needed.
It is important the Welsh Government enables councils to focus their energies on preparing and responding to the virus outbreak. We will empower them to maximise frontline support – helping to maintain essential services such as waste collection by temporarily reducing or removing requirements which make perfect sense in normal times but which may be an obstruction in these extraordinary times.
We have worked with the UK Government to ensure that the Coronavirus Bill, which the Senedd will consider today (24/03/2020), will enable us to postpone annual general meetings and other meetings; and enable essential meetings to take place remotely. We have asked for these regulations to cover principal councils, town and community councils, Fire and Rescue Authorities and National Park Authorities. The Bill will also allow the postponement of local by-elections where and when necessary.
We will adapt our local democracy as we respond to these extraordinary circumstances. We will enable democratic decisions to be made remotely and we will extend the capacity of a local authority to delegate decision making - in a limited and controlled manner. The arrangements for inspections will be altered to fit the current circumstances. The administration and requirements for grants and for other plans are being made more flexible as the circumstances require.
I am acting to fund and enable local authorities to act in an effective manner in response to these very challenging circumstances. I am establishing a single emergency funding stream for local authorities to meet the pressures arising from COVID-19. This will enable authorities to meet the additional costs of delivering existing essential services and the additional demands placed on them by new actions and new responsibilities arising from the emergency legislation laid last week by the UK Government. The Welsh Government is making £30m available for this in the first instance. This includes the provision of up to £7m to support local authorities to urgently provide financial assistance to families of pupils who rely on free school meals, but are unable to receive them due to school closures.
Within that £30m is a fund of some £10m to ensure that, in partnership with their third sector partners, local authorities can put in place urgent and necessary arrangements to protect those at the most acute end of homelessness; rough sleepers. These arrangements must enable people to move off the streets so that they can protect themselves and others. I know that homelessness services across the country have already taken swift and decisive action to secure additional facilities so that those without a home are safe, have access to good sanitation and can safely self-isolate. Whilst each responsible organisation will need to flex its response to meet local context and needs, I have been clear in the guidance issued this week that provision for rough sleepers must be based around the very best practice. I expect local authorities to ensure that those who are temporarily housed in hotels, B&Bs, student accommodation and the like have the right levels of support available to them, are monitored for symptoms and helped to minimise the spread of the virus. I have also been clear that in responding to this public health emergency there should be no restriction on provision for those with no recourse to public funds.
This is a fast changing situation. The First Minister confirmed this week the extraordinary steps we are taking as a nation to keep people safe and to reduce the pressure on our NHS.
We have seen that local councils are responding quickly and effectively to new and emerging challenges as they provide local leadership to local communities. The role of Welsh Government is to provide national leadership and support in support of the energy and commitment being shown at a local level. I am committed to providing that leadership and support.