You Reap What You Sow [2]

Regular councillor roundup

Hello… Steve here.

Welcome to the second issue of my newsletter. It’s quite long but it’s national Cream Tea Day today, so best served with a scone.

I’ll start with an animation by Monique Wray. The audio is from the public speech delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. after the completion of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.


High-wire balancing act

The UK’s COVID-19 alert level has been downgraded from Level 4 to Level 3, meaning that while the epidemic is still “in general circulation” transmission is no longer “high or rising exponentially.”

On Tuesday, the PM announced the latest measures in the easing of the lockdown in England, including the relaxation of the 2-metre rule. The announcement effectively ends all social distancing (or more accurately ‘physical distancing’ with social connection) and some say sends the wrong message - signalling a ‘return to normal’.

This might well be “a big moment for the country” as health secretary Matt Hancock described it, but the risks are still real. The SAGE scientists (and ‘Independent SAGE’) have reviewed the evidence and believe the rate of transmission is still too high to relax the rules. Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, and Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, are going along with it but seemingly with a heavy heart.

So three months after the start of the lockdown it is now ultimately down to us.

At the last daily press conference on Tuesday, Whitty pleaded with the public:

If people don’t take mitigation seriously, if people hear a distorted version of what’s been said – that says ‘this is all fine now, it’s gone away’ – and start behaving in ways that they normally would have before this virus happened, yes we will get an uptick for sure. So it is absolutely critical that people stick to the guidance that has been given.

The toll is heartbreaking.

The decision to reduce the alert level followed a recommendation by the Joint Biosecurity Centre, but they warned it "does not mean that the pandemic is over" and that "localised outbreaks are likely to occur".

During PMQs on Wednesday, Boris Johnson wrongly claimed that Weston-super-Mare had recently gone into ‘local lockdown’ (see my last newsletter) when Sir Kier Starmer questioned whether local authorities would have the powers and resources to implement local lockdowns.

In fact the Council will receive about £870k to help progress plans to reduce the spread of the virus in our area. Last night I was reading a draft of our Local Outbreak Management Plan - which will be submitted to central Government next week. This short clip highlights some of the issues.

Frankly, the data flow will need to rapidly improve if we are going to contain any local outbreak. At the moment local councils aren't being told who's tested positive for the virus in their area. We need the data.

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With the decline in new cases levelling off, scientists are questioning why the Government has eroded the established system of local infectious disease control and created a parallel system which relies on private companies for testing and contact tracing. The failings of our centralised state have become more obvious as this crisis has unfolded. Last week Apple said it did not know the UK was working on a "hybrid" version of the NHS contact-tracing app using tech it developed with Google. Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) was another who spoke out - and here’s another take on it.

Of course this is all a delicate balance. The measures announced on Tuesday are good news for many local businesses and they can look forward to what is being hyped as “Super Saturday” on 4th July. Among them, our wonderful Strawberry Line Café.


#ThankYouTogether

I’ll be joining Annemarie Plas - who began the Clap For Carers - in a final national clap on the 72nd birthday of the NHS. Maybe this will then become an annual thing.

The two key moments during the weekend of the 4th/5th July will be:

  • 4th July - put a light in your window - an LED candle, a lamp or a torch - to remember those we have lost. National landmarks will also be lit up as part of a collective memorial.

  • 5th July - a moment of thanks and connection at 5:00pm when we take part in one last country-wide clap of thanks and then stay out to raise a glass or have a cup of tea with our neighbours.

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Council finances

The pandemic has blown a hole in the Council’s budget. The Council’s Finance Director and his team are constantly monitoring, modelling and re-modelling… worrying about how we will balance the budget this year without further central Government support… and a fair and sustainable funding settlement later in the year. I’m anticipating that councillors will need to consider a revised in-year budget to address the impact of COVID-19 by the end of the summer.

On Wednesday (24th June), the Council’s Executive approved a £1m-plus package of support for the two social enterprises and one charity who operate the six council-owned leisure centres in North Somerset.

Until March, our leisure centres had about 1.5m visits a year, with over 9,000 North Somerset residents as members. They've now been closed for just over three months. I believe it is essential some leisure provision is available to residents through the recovery period, so hope we can open as many our leisure sites as soon as possible once restrictions are lifted.

With my ‘Scrutiny Chair’ hat on, I cameoed (below) into the virtual meeting. I suggested that our leisure centres will have a fundamental role to play in the local recovery from the pandemic, by improving physical and mental health and tackling health inequalities. Cllr Mike Bell addressed the bigger picture…

We have a raft of leisure centres that are old and in serious need of refurbishment, reinvigoration and bringing into relevance in the modern world… and one of the fundamental weaknesses of the council’s position at the moment is that we don’t have that coherent, underpinning long-term strategy for our leisure services. It’s great that this intervention that we have needed to make as a result of COVID will be the catalyst for that.

I agree. This is something I will explore with other councillors - and anyone who wishes to contribute.

Do ask if you’ve any questions about the Council’s budget. I’ll do my best to answer.

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Could do better?

Just over 1 in 5 (21%) adults with children of school age have been asked to send their children back to school, with two-thirds of those saying that their children were now attending school some or all of the time. The data shows that on Thursday 11th June, 868,000 children in England - or 9.1% - are estimated to have been in classes.

On 19th June the Government announced a £1bn plan to help children ‘catch up’ on their education following the lockdown. I’m not sure how this will all roll out, but the educational inequalities opened up by school closures is stark. Of course the pandemic - and lockdown - has affected people of different ages in contrasting ways.

As you will have heard, about 1.3m children in England will be able to claim free school meal vouchers in the summer holidays, after a successful campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford. After some parents got in touch with me about the poor quality of food parcels distributed from Backwell School, I wrote to Gary Lewis at the Lighthouse Schools Partnership - and I’m pleased that their schools will now issue vouchers during the holidays as part of the main government scheme.

Another question on our minds is how to approach Home to School transport from September. Even with the relaxation of the physical distancing rule, it is hard to see this working as we’re used to. With 1m+ distancing, there are physically not enough buses or coaches in North Somerset to transport all school children (or train capacity?) to Backwell. I gather from First Bus that distancing has to be less than 0.6m to make any significant difference to capacity. Until about a month ago the DfE hadn't considered Home to School transport a problem. Lots to think about.

If only Sir Ken Robinson was Secretary of State for Education.


Recycling and waste

It was my ‘bin day’ yesterday and 30 degrees.

When it’s hot it can be difficult for our collection crews, so starting from 1st July, crews can choose to start their shift at 6:00am if they wish, so they can avoid the hottest part of the day. This will continue during the summer months.

Please make sure your bins and recycling boxes are out by 6:00am… which for most of us means taking them out the night before.

Did you know…

Our crews collect from roughly 8,000 homes every day.

During lockdown (compared to the same 13 week period in 2019)…

  • General waste and recycling has increased by 17%

  • Crews have collected 400 tonnes more glass for recycling

  • In some weeks crews collected more cardboard than at Christmas - usually the busiest time.

While I’m on the subject, the Council’s grounds teams have been very busy in recent days clearing shocking amounts of litter and mess left on beaches, as thousands of visitors have flocked to our seaside towns. We are not alone of course - a major incident was declared on Thursday in Bournemouth.

There was a Lord of the Flies vibe to it. The atmosphere was ugly.

This article on the psychology around what might be driving this behaviour is worth your time.


#BlackLivesMatter

Geoff Mulgan recently commented

I’m still astonished how little schoolchildren in Britain learn about the British Empire – whether our role as drug pushers in the Opium Wars, or as predators and thieves in Bengal, in both cases seriously impoverishing what were then very advanced parts of the world. My guess is that most of the current Cabinet think the Empire was basically a good thing, more because of ignorance than malice.

I agree and I think it is incumbent on all of us to be better informed and take positive steps to tackle racism. Here are a few things I’m working my way through.

This is clever…

In summary… I am learning. I'll try harder.

A song for June 2020.

Till next time…

Steve