Once a month we offer a platform to the leaders of both Medway Council and the official opposition. Today, we have the latest column from Cllr Alan Jarrett, Conservative Leader of Medway Council.
THANK YOU TO OUR WONDERFUL NHS STAFF, OUR SOCIAL WORKERS, AND ALL OTHER KEY WORKERS for keeping us safe during a time of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic continues. Since my last column on 1st July an enormous amount has happened in Medway, and by and large things are moving in the right direction whilst the number of new cases being recorded thankfully remains minimal.
It has been my overriding duty as Leader to ensure we do all in our power to alleviate the threat of a local coronavirus outbreak. In this to date we have so far been successful, but we only have to look elsewhere in the country – to places such as Leicester, and Oldham, and Swindon – to see how an outbreak can occur and the devastating impact that can have on the area concerned.
Those impacts include of course health, but also economic impacts. We are working hard to contain the health impacts, and working equally as hard to facilitate rebooting our local economy.
With regard to health we have worked successfully as part of the Kent Resilience Forum to ensure that no stone is left unturned when it comes to containment, response and then recovery, with a range of work streams underway throughout the lockdown period and beyond.
Crucially, we have been working hard to keep the public informed of changes as they occur and to relay government guidance to people across Medway. It pleases me that the vast majority of people follow the guidance about social distancing and the wearing of face coverings in confined spaces.
However, there seems an inevitability that some choose not to follow the guidance and in so doing place themselves and others at risk. I call on all to follow the guidance, to keep safe themselves and to help to protect others.
Medway Council now has the legal powers to implement further lockdowns if the circumstances demand it. This could extend to an extremely localised area, apply to a whole town or even the whole of Medway. We must all work together to ensure this does not happen.
We have worked our way methodically through the various decisions which have to be made. Continuing with my stated aim of returning to as near to normal as possible as soon as possible, decisions to reopen facilities or alternatively not to reopen those at all for this year have been made at exactly the right time.
This means we have reopened libraries and leisure centres, together with other public buildings and facilities as soon as government guidance permitted. It also meant that we had to take the tough decisions not to reopen things like The Strand outdoor pool, or to offer Sweeps and Dickens festivals, or to offer the pantomime season this year.
A major consideration for these reopenings has been to ensure that both public and council staff are able to operate in safe conditions, This has meant ensuring that everything is of course clean and kept clean, whilst safe working conditions in terms of social distancing has mean not all staff have yet been able to return to their normal place of work.
The financial strain on our local economy has been of great concern to us, and we have done all we can to firstly support closed local businesses to reopen as soon as practical, and to pass on government financial assistance as quickly and smoothly as we can. The distribution of grants has been a big success story for Medway Council, with almost £70 million of various reliefs handed out.
We fervently hope that 2020 will draw a line under coronavirus, but there is obviously a long way to go – including getting through this winter when the virus is apparently likely to become more virulent during the colder weather. That means we will have to plan for 2021 whilst there will inevitably be great uncertainty about what that will look like.
Financial planning for any large organisation is inevitably likely to be a challenge. In the case of the council this is never more so. Financial profiling shows that we face a budget gap as high as £40 million; this means there will be difficult days ahead for this administration and a hard slog as we work to maintain the high standards of service delivery we currently all enjoy.
There are some big non-financial hurdles ahead. Probably the biggest of these is getting our children back to school in September, and doing that in manner which keeps pupils, parents and of course staff safe.
So far schools have achieved so much in providing an ongoing service to sections of the community throughout the pandemic. There have been herculean efforts from school staff at all levels to ensure the children of key workers and those needing specialist education have been allowed to attend school, and they are among the unsung heroes of Medway.
A bigger task lies ahead as we seek to get all children back to their schools in September. The education of our children is one of the most important social responsibilities we have, and it requires patience and understanding on all sides for us to achieve this to the required level and standard.
I cannot close this column without mentioning the appalling 7 hour council meeting we all had to endure in mid-July. Normal business was over at 11.30 (late enough you might think), but we then spent a further 150 agonising minutes debating five motions. The end result of those deliberations? We agreed to write a letter to government, and the Conservatives agreed to set up a cross-party working group to look at names of monuments and memorials in Medway.
Astonishingly despite its hand-wringing and histrionics the Labour group refused to support our motion. Labour did not support our sensible motion, instead sought to turn the evening into a circus, including a 7-page amendment and this at a time when elected members were attending the meeting remotely.
Alan Jarrett is the leader of Medway Council, leader of the Medway Conservative group, and councillor for Lordswood and Capstone.