How Lancashire County Council turned its usual way of working upside down to deal with coronavirus

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In the weeks before coronavirus came to dominate every aspect of life, Lancashire County Council was considering how it could make it easier for its staff to work remotely.

The idea was born out of a drive for efficiency – but in the space of a single weekend in mid-March, it became a necessity.

Around half of the authority’s 12,000 staff are now logging on from home every day. According to one of the county council’s most senior officers, County Hall has been left “like a ghost ship”.

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It is the most tangible sign of the flexibility which Stephen Young – executive director for growth and transport – says is enabling the authority to deliver vital services in these toughest of times.

Stephen Young, executive director for growth, environment, transport and community services at Lancashire County Council (image: Lancashire County Council)Stephen Young, executive director for growth, environment, transport and community services at Lancashire County Council (image: Lancashire County Council)
Stephen Young, executive director for growth, environment, transport and community services at Lancashire County Council (image: Lancashire County Council) | other

“We’ve had people volunteering for new roles – from care homes, to supporting the NHS, to staffing our 24-hour contact centre.

“They have been incredibly supportive and single-minded in helping the people of Lancashire. Nobody has mentioned to me pay or terms and conditions – people have just cracked on, working weekends and long days.

People are available and will do anything you ask them to.”

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One product of that can-do attitude was the construction last week of a temporary morgue at the BAE Systems plant at Warton – carried out by members of the same team which built the Penwortham bypass.

That grim project – which it is hoped will not be needed – is one of a range of responsibilities which the county council has in the Lancashire-wide response to the coronavirus. Others include supporting the efforts of district authorities in distributing food to individuals who have been forced to shield themselves from the outside world as a result of their vulnerability should they contract Covid-19.

Whilst the pandemic has seen County Hall extend its reach into areas which would not be its usual preserve, one of the authority’s main functions during normal times – adult social care – continues to be a top priority. But according to Mark Taylor, resilience service delivery manager, it now comes with an added layer of complexity.

“Our main focus is supporting vulnerable people. However, our main concern during emergencies is the people we don’t know about – those who aren’t receiving any type of care package from an agency but who have become vulnerable because of this emergency.

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“We know it’s not business as usual for the council, but we’re maintaining critical services – while still following government advice on social distancing.”

Mr. Taylor, who leads a team of 12 emergency planners, says Lancashire residents should be reassured that the county’s preparations for a pandemic have stood it in good stead to respond to the current outbreak. Such a scenario was one of the top risks for which the public sector in the region has long been planning – although their work was based on a flu-type disease, rather than coronavirus.

“There are often common themes to emergencies – like making sure that people have access to information and council services.

“One of the main things is for us to be ready 24/7 – and our [current] response is broadly similar to that for an influenza pandemic.

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“The main difference with this emergency is its longevity. While the recovery from something like a flood can take a long time, the actual event itself is usually over quite quickly.

“But I’m proud that we have got some really good partnerships with other agencies – there’s nothing better than knowing the police officer or fire officer who you’re going to have to ring at 2am,” he adds.

That sense of trust and mutual support between organisations and individuals is something which appears to be widely relied upon in response to this crisis.

County council leader Geoff Driver – adhering to government advice as a septuagenarian by overseeing the effort from his home – has given his top officers more autonomy than they would usually have when it comes to making decisions.

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“The senior managers are pulling out all the stops,” he said of County Hall’s chief executive and executive directors, each of whom have distinct areas of responsibility.

“We’ve delegated the ability to commit expenditure to them, whereas ordinarily, they would have had to come to [the cabinet]. Obviously, they keep me informed – we’re in regular contact throughout the day and it’s working well.”

County Cllr Driver also paid tribute to the efforts of staff throughout the organisation.

“I would never describe going into local government as a calling, like being a nurse or a doctor – but this shows that people are working in the public sector because they care.”

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Those same staff, of course, are not immune to the virus itself and absence levels are currently running at 25 percent. However, many of those employees are self-isolating as a precaution and so are able to continue to work from home.

Meanwhile, some essential on-site activity – such as road repairs – is continuing where it is safe to do so.

However, there is no disguising the fact that some of the county council’s biggest projects have been forced onto the backburner.

“Work on the Preston Western Distributor (the new dual carriageway between the A585 and M55) has fallen away a little more each day, because there are only so many things you can do when you can’t be within two metres of someone else on a construction site,” Stephen Young explains.

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“We’ve had to press pause on a build project at Lancashire Enterprise Park and the Lancashire Central project [logistics hub at Cuerden] has also stopped, because it’s impossible to do anything with it at the moment.”

However, Mr. Young hopes that when the day comes that the county is free of coronavirus-related restrictions, the authority will quickly be able to get back to business as usual.

Something which he feels that this outbreak has changed forever, though, is the perception of what is possible beyond the traditional way in which local authorities have operated.

“I’d be the first to admit that Skype meetings were not my favourite thing, but now I’m more used to them and think they work quite well. Cultural barriers have also been smashed aside and we have shown that we can be agile, so there are certain things that we don’t want to lose [when the crisis is over].

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“That said, this is all quite new at the moment – but if it goes on for weeks, then those normal social interactions between colleagues will be lost, which would be a downside.

“Some things will certainly change and I don’t think the organisation will ever be the same again. But I don’t think we’ll ever routinely have just a handful of people in County Hall.”