Conservative councillors respond to Council’s recovery plan
Conservative councillors on Hounslow Council have published their response to the council’s recovery plan, which is on the agenda of the cabinet meeting this evening.
The Conservative response addresses the three main areas in the council’s recovery plan – the operation of the council, its finances and the economic recovery – but it also comments on other issues, notably education and schools, not addressed by the council.
Cllr Joanna Biddolph, Leader of the Conservative Group, said:
“I want to thank the council’s staff for the way they have coped with and adapted to the crisis. Their support has been vital in keeping existing services running and in delivering new ones. And we shall need their commitment even more as the recovery gets underway.
“It is important for the council to learn the lessons of the pandemic now that the peak has passed, not least because we do not know if there will be a second spike.
“But the biggest task facing the council is the recovery. The plan is very general and misses out some important issues altogether. It also fails to address properly important impacts on society, including education and schools, housing and youth services. There also needs to be greater detail on how the council will work with the voluntary sector. It is good that the council says it wants to be driven by the evidence but we need to see that approach applied in practice.
“Many of us in Hounslow have an ambivalent relationship with Heathrow but there is no avoiding the fact that how quickly the airport recovers will be the key driver of what happens to the economy of the borough. The local authorities around the airport need to work together in response to the job losses that have already been announced.
“But there is much the council can do to support our ailing high streets and to encourage investment in the borough. The pandemic has brought misery to many but changes in the global economy that follow it could be turned to our advantage, such as manufacturers deciding to be less reliant on China and to make more here.
“The key challenge for the council now will be to respond to the economic problems effectively. To do so, they need to involve local businesses, voluntary organisations and consult widely”.
The text of the full Conservative response is below.
Hounslow Conservative councillors’ response to the council’s Covid-19 recovery plan
The Council & Covid-19
We would like to start by expressing our gratitude to the staff of Hounslow Council for their continuing work during the pandemic. Many have been working from home, not always in easy circumstances and often for longer hours than usual. Others have had to continue in public-facing roles with all the attendant risks. Some have switched roles to support the council’s response. We thank them all for their flexibility. We are also very aware that the council will need the support and commitment of all its staff as we move into the recovery phase and beyond, which will bring many new challenges.
It will be important, as the peak of the crisis, for the council to conduct a thorough debrief on the handling of the pandemic, which must involve councillors, not least because we do not know how (or indeed if) the pandemic will end. The start of the debrief must happen soon recording experiences while they are fresh in people’s minds. That will be especially important if there is a second wave so that mistakes are not repeated. We must urgently update our crisis management plans with lessons learned and new actions.
We strongly endorse the emphasis on basing the council’s policies on understanding and a robust evidence base. That will mean a willingness on the part of officers and councillors to drop or amend policy proposals for which there is little, inadequate or no evidence base.
We make the following specific points on this section:
- the key to handling the evolving situation will be flexibility; there is a real danger of making assumptions about what “the new normal” will look like; the truth is we do not know (for example) whether a vaccine will be developed and distributed quickly; if it is, life will quickly resume, making many plans at present for elaborate social distancing arrangements redundant; if no vaccine is available the situation will be different again;
- in this context the council must be careful not to commit itself to policies that may quickly be out of date – such as redesigning public parks or structural changes to the road layout and parking - as they may not be needed at all or the need may be short-lived;
- the council must not over-commit itself, it must focus on its core responsibilities and services and deliver those to the highest possible standard; given the stresses and strains of working from home, redeployment and coping with the virus, there are is a risk of burn-out amongst the staff and councillors;
- the council must focus any additional work on those areas where it can demonstrably add value or where the virus has exposed significant gaps in service provision or in performance; the council should undertake an audit of its services and activities (including of their quality) and identify whether there are any which it can reduce or withdraw from altogether; the pandemic should not be an excuse for empire building;
- there are positive commitments in the report to making the council a listening one, which works more closely with residents and businesses; this is welcome but is a long way from the council’s approach at present, which is very top down; the cultural shift required will be a challenge, particularly for some councillors;
- closer working with neighbouring boroughs has been a welcome aspect of the council’s pandemic response; we now need to see that normalised, so that there is a routine dialogue between the councils, at member as well as officer level; this should include planning policy and infrastructure;
- communications need to reach everyone in the borough and not be (as they have been) over-reliant on the limited reach of the internet and social media.
The impact on the council’s budget
The paper highlights the impact on the council’s budget, both in terms of additional costs due to the pandemic and in lost income because of the lockdown. There are also some likely increases in demand in the future which are difficult to cost at this stage.
Overall, Hounslow Council has a record of over-spending budgets in recent years so it may not be in a strong position to deal with the consequences of the pandemic. It has been promised £19.56 million by central Government against expected expenditure of £15 million and income losses of £14 million. If all the additional costs not so far funded by central government fall on the council taxpayer there would either have to be significant spending cuts or rises in the council tax and in service charges. It is difficult for central government to compensate local authorities for income losses as councils’ dependence on income varies widely and the future is unknown.
In particular we note that:
- much of the lost income is due to a fall in parking-related income but as parking income can lawfully only be spent on a limited number of policy areas so the impact of this on the council’s finances will be limited;
- timing is everything; so much depends on how quickly the economy revives and income returns; a prolonged economic downturn will reduce income further;
- there is an understandable lack of detail in some of the council’s figures at present and that will need to be addressed if members are to understand fully the financial picture;
- despite the difficulties on the revenue side, the council has a capital fund of £60 million, this is separate from reserves and it could potentially be used to support recovery.
The economic impact
The pandemic has had a huge impact on all our lives and we know that in the next phase the extent of the damage to our economy (despite the government’s £103 billion support measures) and to all aspects of our society will become fully apparent.
In particular, although the main drivers on economic recovery are held by central government and by the private sector, local councils have a part to play. There are many elements in Hounslow’s plan with which we can agree but some aspects of it are concerning, it is a very general document and lacks the detail needed to take policy forward.
It is also unhelpful that there is no attempt to assess where the economy will be in six to nine months’ time. It would have been useful to know the range of outcomes that lay behind the plan and which was considered most likely. This is important because we will not be able to judge how successful the plan has been as there is no baseline from which to measure performance – something which conflicts with the plan’s stated aim of policy being driven by data and evidence.
There are three areas of particular concern:
First, Heathrow. Many of us who live in Hounslow have an ambivalent view of Heathrow Airport. It provides employment, directly and indirectly, for over 40,000 of our residents. But is also the cause of noise nuisance, pollution, congestion and other environmental disbenefits. But it is definitely the case that what happens at Heathrow will determine how quickly the borough’s economy will revive. With Heathrow operating fewer than 10 per cent of its normal flight schedule, the economic impact will be immense. The council urgently needs to agree with other local authorities around Heathrow on measures to ameliorate the worst impacts of the redundancies already announced and those which will sadly come over the next few months. Can we use the redundancies in the aviation sector to help to tackle skills shortages in areas such as care services and IT?
Second, our retail economy and high streets. Britain’s high streets have been declining for several years. The toxic combination of inflated rents, high business rates (currently being reviewed by government), vast shopping centres such as Westfield, the growth of online competition and now structural changes such as the removal of parking have all undermined local shopping areas. We can see this in Chiswick and elsewhere in Hounslow today. The hospitality sector is in even greater trouble given the difficulties of operating social distancing in many establishments and the loss of aviation industry contracts. It is therefore deeply disappointing that there is only passing reference to retail businesses in the council’s plan. We should already be looking at a more radical programme of action to support Hounslow traders as they face the uphill task of trying to recover from the lockdown whilst still trying to cope with all the other challenges they face.
Thirdly, bringing in new investment. West London has long been known for the diversity of its local economy. It has been a centre of manufacturing, of healthcare and pharmaceuticals, IT services, of brewing and hospitality as well as in more recent times being known for the airport and its associated service industries. The pandemic has shown just how over-dependent we have become on one sector – aviation and transportation – and how much we need as a borough to diversify.
The acknowledged problems with supply chains in the pandemic have created opportunities which could (and should) mean more manufacturing here in Britain. An obvious example is the manufacture of pharmaceuticals where the UK has become over-reliant on imports from China and India despite our world-leading pharmaceutical research base. Even before the pandemic we were experiencing pharmaceutical shortages throughout Europe. London with its world class hospitals and universities and highly skilled workforce is well placed to pitch for the new opportunities that will arise as drug manufacturers look for new locations in Europe. The West London local authorities including Hounslow with its golden mile should be promoting the area as a great investment location, including for manufacturing.
We share the council’s desire to use the recovery to develop more sustainable growth in Hounslow and beyond. But we need to be realistic when talking in ambitious terms about “greening the economy “. This is neither a new idea nor an original one. Most local authorities and central government will be pursuing similar approaches. Much of the detail of the council’s climate action emergency plan requires expensive interventions to reduce emissions, such as phasing out the use of domestic gas boilers. What does “greening the economy” really mean? The council urgently needs to bring together all the expertise within the borough, in the private, public and voluntary sectors, to answer that question.
In addition, the following points need to be considered:
- the makeup of the proposed recovery programme board and taskforces is unclear (the graphic in the report is blurred and unreadable);
- there should be a representative on the main task force from the retail economy and from each of the main communities in the borough (Brentford, Chiswick, Feltham, Hounslow and other smaller centres);
- similarly, the taskforces must include relevant representatives; that for economic recovery and regeneration should include representatives of all the major economic sectors in the borough (e.g. civil aviation, logistics and transportation, pharmaceutical, media, finance and retail);
- the council should be lobbying for the scrapping of business rates and their replacement by a more equitable system, one that reflects today’s economy and which does not disadvantage local traders;
- housing and construction are not mentioned yet there are major schemes in the pipeline across the borough; it is not clear how many of these will be delayed or even scrapped because of the recession and risks to health;
- the recession could provide an opportunity to revisit some of the council’s development proposals, which could lead to the promotion of developments that have a more human scale, respond better to the local environment, better meet local housing needs (including for more affordable housing) and are more sustainable;
- town centres, regeneration and planning need to be part of the economic recovery programme and one that (as with all economic development) involve local businesses and extensive consultation.
Impacts on society
The Council’s commitments on closer working with the voluntary sector are very welcome. It is important this does not become institutionalised and selective. There is evidence that favouring groups or individuals demoralises and excludes others and that is felt and expressed across the borough. In the past there has been a tendency to see volunteers as a risk rather than an opportunity; that is a cultural change that the council now needs to make. There is a need for a dialogue between the council and the whole of the voluntary sector; it may be that we could begin this through the area forums.
The community recovery taskforce must reach out to all parts of the borough and all communities and not only to and through those groups with whom the council has an established relationship.
Education & schools
There is nothing in the recovery plan about the impact on pupils, students and schools of the pandemic. Many of our most vulnerable children did not take up the offer of going to school during the lockdown and many more pupils will have had their learning set back through missing school. This could impact severely on an entire generation. Notwithstanding what decisions central government makes, we need an urgent action plan to support schools and students, including through summer school provision, to enable them to catch up and avoid serious repercussions in the future.
In addition, skills shortages in the economy are not matched to the available workforce. Across West London the boroughs need to work with the further education colleges, universities and the business community to identify skills gaps and ensure there is provision to meet them in all workplace settings.
Youth services provide vital support and most have been suspended during the lockdown. Re-starting them should be a priority, even though there will be difficulties in operating youth clubs and other activities with social distancing. Some can be done if attendance is limited at each event and repeated so more can attend. Enabling youth services to re-start is important to the well-being of young people in the borough, to talk about the impact of the lockdown on their lives and to discuss other issues of concern to them.
The shortage of housing in London is a major issue. Given the low cost of borrowing to government, the recovery period could be an opportunity to enable the building of more affordable housing as well as opportunity to eliminate rough sleeping. As we have said, the focus of the Mayor’s London Plan on building large numbers of high rise blocks of small apartments needs to be revisited. Hounslow Council should lobby the Mayor as the pandemic has exposed risks to mental health, issues of quality of life and the need for office space at home in high rise blocks. In addition, the council should consider bidding (perhaps with neighbouring boroughs) for some of the capital funds announced by the Government to provide suitable housing for rough sleepers.
9 June 2020