Councillor Ric Metcalfe, Leader of the Council and Portfolio Holder for Our People and Resources, presented a report on the work of his portfolio which focussed predominantly on the significant effects of the Covid-19 virus on the Council’s services, the way services were currently being delivered and the ongoing recovery process.
Councillor Metcalfe highlighted, like all other organisations, that the Council had been forced to make dramatic changes not only to ensure critical services could still function since the commencement of the outbreak but also in order that it could perform its important community leadership role for the city in this time of crisis.
Councillor Metcalfe praised the Council’s staff and its elected members who he said throughout the pandemic had demonstrated remarkable strength and resilience and reiterated his gratitude for what they had achieved during this very challenging period. He recognised that members were aware of the devastating impact Covid-19 had inevitably had on the Council’s finances, however it had been possible to balance the authority’s budget for 2020/21. He acknowledged that some very difficult and unwelcome decisions had been made into order to balance the budget for next year and warned members that, unfortunately, there would be more to come. Despite this, however, Councillor Metcalfe highlighted that services had remained up and running, with vital services still being made available for the city’s communities which he said was the Council’s overriding priority at this time.
In view of the current situation and the challenges posed over the last six months, Councillor Metcalfe expressed his astonishment that Lincolnshire County Council had instigated local government reform proposals for Greater Lincolnshire back in May 2020 without any consultation with Lincolnshire District Councils. He added that his view that this was not a priority at such a critical time appeared to have prevailed as the Government’s programme for local government reform and the publication of its Devolution and Recovery White Paper had been delayed. He reported, however, that no formal confirmation of the Government’s intentions in this respect had yet to be received.
Councillor Metcalfe reminded members that the threat of Covid-19 was by no means over and would continue to pose challenges to everyone. He was of the view, however, that his report on the Council’s response to the pandemic over the past six months demonstrated that the City Council would be ready to meet any future challenge.
Councillor Donald Nannestad, Deputy Leader of the Council, added his thanks to the Council’s staff for their work over the last six months under extremely difficult circumstances, in the knowledge that there would be more challenges to come. He asked whether the Leader of the Council agreed that the instigation of local government reform by Lincolnshire County Council had resulted in an unnecessary distraction when concentration and resources should have been focussed on the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting that a significant amount of time and resources had been diverted to respond to proposed reform measures in the county.
Councillor Chris Burke agreed with Councillor Nannestad’s comments and was of the view that all bodies should be working together across communities at this time. He highlighted the excellent work undertaken by the Council’s officers, particularly the befriending service, and said that the city’s churches also needed complementing for the support they had provided to communities across Lincoln. Councillor Burke added that Lincoln had been a superb community to represent over the past six months.
Councillor Ronald Hills agreed with the sentiments made regarding local government reform and that any such reform needed to consider how best the people of Lincoln could be represented. He reflected on devolution proposals and their importance as part of any reorganisation, citing the home nations of examples whereby devolved powers had been key in responding independently to Covid-19.
Councillor Edmund Strengiel referred to the Medium Term Financial Strategy 2021-2026 and made the point that the business of the Council and Government had to carry on irrespective of national disasters. In respect of local government reform, Councillor Strengiel understood that the County Council’s instigation of such reform was solely in support of local government.
Councillor Metcalfe, in response to comments regarding local government reform, agreed that its instigation by Lincolnshire County Council at this particular time had driven away essential resources which should have been put to better use in response to Covid-19. He acknowledged that change was necessary and that there were clear benefits in respect of devolving more powers from Government to local government and recognised the need for a unitary authority. The key aspect from his perspective, however, was a focus on place and the significance of Lincoln in Lincolnshire as a starting point for changing the governance structures in Lincolnshire and Greater Lincolnshire. He emphasised how willing he would be to discuss and consider this matter further, just not at this current time in the midst of an international pandemic. A huge amount of officer time had been taken up in respect of local government reform and a significant piece of work was in the process of being finalised in order that the City Council was properly prepared should a business case need to be submitted to Government at any point in the near future.