Preston City Council: story of the pandemic

It is difficult to find positives in the midst of a pandemic.

Friday, 24th July 2020, 10:30 am
Updated Friday, 24th July 2020, 10:34 am

Yet as Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown reflects on the challenges of leading the authority over the past four months, he is hoping that life on the other side of the Covid crisis will change for the better for the city’s residents.

“It’s still hard to get your head around everything that has happened – but we’ve got to try and bring some good out of something that’s been so traumatic.

“When you have a collective trauma like this, it tends to be minority groups and poorer people who suffer more, sadly – and we’ve got to try to redress that balance.

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It has been business as never before at Preston Town Hall during the pandemic (image: Google Streetview)

“Because the reality is that the people who got us through this are the people who have previously been described as low-skilled – the likes of care workers, shop staff, bus drivers. I hope this experience changes the way people think,” he said.

Cllr Brown believes that the “co-operative spirit” which the council has tried to promote in recent years flourished during the depths of the crisis, when community and faith groups pulled together to pull Preston through.

However, his hope for the future of the city is tempered with reality – and the fear of a forthcoming wave of business failures and unemployment.

“The public sector in the city needs to purchase a lot more from locally-based businesses and focus on groups which have lost or will lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic. It should also look at targeting its recruitment in areas of high unemployment.

“My ambition is that the council plays a big role in the recovery, both by doing things itself and also influencing others.”

Cabinet member for community wealth-building Freddie Bailey similarly sees the emergence from the current crisis as an opportunity to “build a better economy – with fairer wages and stronger employment rights”.

“I think the situation we now face strengthens that argument. It’s not anti-business – I don’t want people to stop making profit or becoming entrepreneurs, but I do want workers to share in the rewards,” he said, pointing to planned co-operatives for the BAME community and the taxi trade.

As the council casts a cautious eye to the future, many of the authority’s cabinet are only just emerging from beneath the weight of their day-to-day responsibilities since the outbreak struck.

Robert Boswell, member for the environment, found the services in his portfolio were at the forefront of the practical response to the pandemic.

“Refuse collection was a big challenge – with people being at home more, they generated more waste. We have collected over 2,100 tonnes more rubbish [so far this year] – the waste teams have worked very hard and the public have been very supportive of them.

“I think people likewise appreciated the work to keep our parks open and looking at their best during the lockdown, because they were popular destinations for the daily exercise we were allowed.

“And it was also essential that our markets were kept going, difficult though that was, because they were providing essential food to the people of Preston – so we supported them in establishing home delivery services,” Cllr Boswell said.

For some residents, the pandemic posed the real prospect of being unable to access food at all – either as a result of practical barriers, such as having to shield, or because of sudden, lockdown-induced poverty.

Like all local authorities, Preston was tasked with establishing community hubs to ensure that the most vulnerable were not left without essential supplies – a scheme that ended up supporting 1,200 households a week in the city and delivering almost 20,000 food parcels. Existing food banks also joined the effort and new ones were created.

However, it was volunteers who were the driving force behind both of the relief schemes.

“It has been humbling to see such generosity and community spirit – particularly amongst our faith and community groups,” said cabinet member for community and social justice Nweeda Khan.

“There was no separation between different groups – nobody saw it through that lens at all.”

Nowhere was that community spirit on greater display than in the response to the plight of around 400 UCLan students from southern India who found themselves stranded in the city at the start of the lockdown – and were duly provided with hot meals every day by kind-hearted Prestonians.

While his colleagues were concentrating on the plight of the living, cabinet member for planning and regeneration Peter Moss assumed the grim responsibility of preparing for a surge in coronavirus deaths in the city.

Although he was thankful that the “worst possible scenario” was avoided, that did not diminish the distress of those forced to grieve amidst social distancing restrictions.

“We tried to ensure we accommodated all religious and cultural beliefs as far as we could. We worked closely with Preston Muslim Burial Society and, while there were some things that they were understandably not comfortable in accepting, they graciously did so.

“We were mindful that we didn’t want to create more stress and anxiety for people at such a terrible time,” said Cllr Moss, who also paid tribute to the council’s “outstanding” staff for their work in this area and the many others into which they were unexpectedly pitched by the pandemic.

As he witnessed the workloads of his cabinet colleagues balloon, Peter Kelly – member for leisure and culture – saw almost everything for which he was responsible mothballed or cancelled overnight.

However, he seized the unwanted opportunity provided by the forced closure of the Harris Museum to undertake some of the architectural surveys needed ahead of the submission of a £4.7m lottery bid later this year as part of the venue’s “Reimagining” project.

He also wanted to ensure that would-be visitors did not miss out entirely during lockdown.

“We were already digitising a lot of the displays, because only about 40 percent of what we have is on show at any one time – so we ramped up that process after we had to close.

“People really appreciated it, because they were stuck at home, either furloughed or looking after kids – and families needed something to do,” Cllr Kelly said.

Whether it was the nice to have or the need to have, councils of all sizes and political persuasions have been on the frontline of the Covid response.

Cllr Brown hopes that central government remembers their “essential” role during this crisis.

“We’ve certainly thrown everything at it,” he said.