By Tony Earnshaw LDRS
Council chiefs in Kirklees fear they may struggle to cope with the cumulative impact of Covid, looming Brexit and unexpected emergencies caused by extreme weather events like last year’s Storm Ciara.
The authority is now looking for clarity from Westminster on how the government will support local authorities in the coming months – and whether troops will be used to carry out mass Covid-19 testing as they did in Liverpool.
From the point of the first coronavirus lockdown, Kirklees Council redeployed “a large number” of staff whose roles were not business critical to help communities and residents.
Some worked in foodbanks or helped people access food and emergency cash/grants
But the enormity of the challenge in the uncertain months to come – combining the introduction of localised track and trace, mass testing and the roll-out of a vaccine – means shouldering the burden of a monumental crisis that has been likened to “a perfect storm”.
Senior figures say they are adopting a pragmatic approach and want to avoid scaremongering but that the next six months will test the council’s resilience.
Naz Parkar, the council’s director of growth and housing, said: “We have been severely tested through the Covid response and we have been stretched.
“We’ve got the resilience as long as our partners – say, for instance, the army – come to lend their support to that effort.
“Whether we can continue it through the next three to six months is a question we’re just working through in terms of scenarios depending on the various things – the ‘perfect storm’ that we might have to contend with.
“The work we’re doing is to ensure that we’re not in a weakened state [after Brexit].”
He was speaking at a meeting of the council’s Corporate Scrutiny Panel (Dec 1).
With the clock ticking on Britain’s transition period from the European Union, which ends on December 31, Kirklees, like other local authorities, faces the headache of supporting businesses through the exit process.
Asked by Clr John Lawson (Lib Dem, Cleckheaton) whether the council’s processes and systems had been “stress-tested or dented” by the health emergency, Mr Parkar said its response depended largely on what support it received from government.
And he said a second full-scale shutdown of local services was no longer likely.
He added: “We can’t close everything. We have to keep some services going.
“So we are just doing a little bit of that scenario modelling to say ‘[If] everything’s [focused] on vaccinations, for instance, and we had a flood to respond to, how would we cope?’”
Mr Parkar said the council was liaising with the Chamber of Trade and the Federation of Small Businesses to support the borough’s small and medium-sized enterprises, some of which lack preparedness for Brexit.
However he said ongoing uncertainty meant the council had little choice but to direct businesspeople to the government’s website for up-to-date advice.
He described it as “the best we can do at this stage because there is no real clarity.
“And even if there is clarity that doesn’t leave that much time to do the preparing for businesses and to then adapt and adjust to the new environment.
“They find themselves in very uncertain times.”
Speaking after the meeting senior councillor Graham Turner (Lab, Denby Dale) said diverting large numbers of Kirklees Active Leisure (KAL) employees to support mass testing and vaccinations would no longer be an option as leisure centres are set to re-open.
That means already over-stretched staff will be impacted further.
He said: “Nobody has ever rolled out a vaccine across the entire country in such a short space of time. It’s not a simple job. It’s a huge task.
“It’s not going to be easy for our staff or for the public, come to that, but we will rise to the challenge.
“Brexit could add an extra layer of challenge that we could really do without. As soon as a deal – or no deal – is agreed the better it will be for us all.
“That will allow us to plan: for local businesses as well as for a local authority.”