NALC Coronavirus Update for Town and Parish Councils 17th April 2020

ABOUT

This page has been created to provide local (parish and town) councils with information related to the coronavirus. It should not be used as a substitute for government advice, however, there are some practicalities specific to local councils where we hope this information will help you plan ahead and manage your risks. If you would like further advice and support on any of these topics for your local council then please contact your local county association.

This is a fast-moving situation and we will be updating this page regularly.

SOURCES OF ADVICE

The coronavirus situation is fast-moving and there is an increasing amount of misinformation online. We should be using government advice to inform decisions and be checking that advice regularly.

Financial impact survey

NALC needs your help to gather evidence on the financial impact of the coronavirus on local councils.

This information is vital to our representation to the government on the loss of income to local councils during these difficult times, and the need for a tailored financial support package for the local council sector.

The short survey includes questions on precept, staffing and income so it would be helpful to have this data to hand when completing the survey.

Please help us to help you by taking a few minutes to complete the survey as soon as possible or by 24 April at the latest.

NALC’s Super Councils Network has already completed a separate survey, therefore do not need to complete this survey. We are also working with county officers on a separate survey on the financial impact on county associations.

Supporting communities

Local councils are ideally placed to inform and support residents as they already do in so many spheres — from assisting during flooding and other emergencies to supporting vulnerable or lonely people. And this will almost certainly be the case in the current situation. Cllr Sue Baxter, chairman of NALC, met Nigel Huddleston MP (DCMS minister and their representative on COBRA) on NALC’s Lobby Day on 10 March, who saw a potentially big role for parishes during the current period, including keeping an eye on vulnerable people and encouraging new volunteers to come forward to help.

NALC has also engaged with PHE and communicated the desire from local councils to support their communities and the need for information on how best to do this within the scope of government advice on social distancing. PHE is launching further guidance to support community activities next week which we will share widely.

We know already the coronavirus has affected every community in a multitude of ways, with local councils doing a brilliant job in difficult circumstances. Playing their part to support the community and its residents, businesses, and groups at this challenging time.

Such as Woodbridge Town Council in Suffolk, which has set-up an emergency response group of councillors and volunteers which will assist with collection/delivery of medicines, shopping, walking the dog or simply being a voice at the end of the phone, and Hagley Parish Council in Worcestershire, which is acting as an information hub and plans to publicise restaurants offering a delivery service and contact details for NHS helplines. And Backwell Parish Council, Somerset, has a dedicated team of over 30 volunteers who can organise to have someone check in regularly with the elderly or at high-risk either by phone, Skype or FaceTime.

You can read more about their work, and that of other local councils, in our newly published Coronavirus case studies publication.

But we want to continue to gather your stories about how local councils are responding to the current situation. Which we can share with other local councils to provide inspiration, and importantly to support our engagement with government. Please spend a few minutes to tell us what you are doing in this short survey. Or you can simply email NALC at  or tweet us @nalc.

Useful national resources for supporting your community

Local council meetings

On 2 April, the government published The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020. These regulations come into force on 4 April.

NALC launched two documents — a legal briefing note on our interpretation of the regulations and practical guidance for local councils on how to hold effective remote council meetings. NALC has also responded to the government, feeding back issues relating to the regulations – this information can be found in the engaging with government section. Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) and the Association of Democratic Services Officers (ADSO) have also produced guidance on the regulations on how they affect all local authorities – NALC was pleased to contribute to sections related to local councils.

On 24 March, NALC and the Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC) issued a joint letter to local councils commending them for their work supporting their communities and reiterating the new rules on staying at home, self-isolating and shielding — read the letter.

Discount for Zoom subscription

NALC is currently liaising with the Crown Commercial Service and Zoom regarding the discounted package below. We have now been advised that the deal is for a minimum of 10 licences per subscription, which we hadn’t been told previously. We are exploring this further and will provide an update as soon as possible. In the meantime, Zoom has currently reduced their annual Pro Package to the equivalent of £9.99 a month if billed annually (£119.90, saving £24).

NALC has been working with the Crown Commercial Service so that local councils are included in the public sector organisations eligible to access a discounted package from Zoom. This discount means councils can access the Pro plan for Zoom at £7.99 per month. The normal advertised rate for this package is £12.99. This discount is also available to county associations.

To access this discounted rate please email Zoom at  and quote contract number CCS 020A33. If asked which department or category you are related to please state the National Association of Local Councils.

Of course, councils can also choose to use the free service from Zoom — set up an account.

If you do choose to use Zoom, there is a range of free information and training to help people use the platform which is definitely worth having a look at to help get you started. A recent update on the Zoom blog has been guidance on hosting public meetings including how to keep uninvited guests out of your meeting.

Northamptonshire County Association of Local Councils has created a video to demonstrate what a virtual meeting of (the fictional) Great Pipping Parish Council would look like in Zoom. It is a training video designed to show how a chairman would deal with councillors joining by computer and phone, declarations of interest, public participation and confidential items where members of the public and press are excluded.

Managing risks to the council

We would recommend that local councils consider different scenarios and what actions might help mitigate any risks to the council. This will vary for individual councils and it may be that no specific actions or changes are required. As examples:

  • It may be helpful to review your scheme of delegation to ensure it is fit for purpose and would ensure minimal disruption to the work of the council if councillors are not able to attend meetings and committees. For example, you may wish to consider if certain decisions could be delegated to the clerk, in consultation with the chairman and vice-chairman, as a contingency plan in case council meetings are postponed due to the coronavirus
  • You may wish to review critical functions or services and consider how these would continue in the case of staff absence
  • You may have local residents with queries about coronavirus, in which case we would advise you signpost them to government information and advice as highlighted above
  • What about the financial year-end and AGAR?
  • Following NALC’s engagement with government around local council audit timeframes final regulations were published on 7 April and will come into force on 30 April. These extend the statutory audit deadlines for 2019/20.
  • The Joint Practitioners Action Group (JPAG) has produced updated flow charts and step-by-step guides related to the changes to audit time frames. These can be found on ourJPAG webpage.
  • We are pleased the government has listened to the sector and recognises the need for an extension to the timeframes for audit. This extension is for two months and not the minimum of at least three months which NALC called for inour response to the consultation on the draft regulations.
  • Will elections be affected?
  • The Coronavirus Act, which the government introduced on 19 March, postpones any elections that were due to be held in May 2020 until 6 May 2021. Any other electoral events, such as the council or parliamentary by-elections, will also be postponed until May 2021.
  • NALC has published a legal briefing, which gives guidance on the implications for local councils of the Local Government and Police and Crime Commissioner (Coronavirus) (Postponement of Elections and Referendums) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020. This includes commentary on the prohibition on holding elections to fill casual vacancies until 6 May 2021.

Government engagement

NALC is continuing to engage with the government, and other stakeholders such as the LGA and PHE, on how local councils are responding to the current public health crisis, and raising issues regarding any impact on the operation of our local councils.

The fast-tracked Coronavirus Bill was considered by the House of Commons on 23 March and House of Lords on 24/25 March. It has now received Royal Assent and is an Act of Parliament. Provisions of particular relevance to local councils are on the postponement of local elections and local authority meetings. We are pressing the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to work with us on any subsequent regulations. We don’t have the timeframe for those at present but will keep you updated.

A summary of issues which we have been raising with MHCLG, including those which relate to the Coronavirus Act, include:

  • Holding of statutory meetings (such as annual parish meeting and the annual council meeting) – We are communicating the concerns that councils have around their ability to hold meetings within the statutory deadlines.
  • Audit deadlines — We are communicating the concerns that local councils have around their ability to hold meetings within the statutory deadlines.
  • Local elections — With the postponement of local elections we are seeking clarification on the implications of this, including on by-elections and neighbourhood planning referendums.
  • Democratic decision-making (e.g. if councils are unable to be quorate for an extended period of time) — We are communicating the difficulties that councils are experiences or expecting, this includes the question of phone/online attendance.
  • Public Works Loan Board – We have sought clarification on whether repayments would be subject to deferral in keeping with other measures announced regarding mortgages and loans.

On 16 March 2020, local government secretary Robert Jenrick MP addressed over 300 council leaders and sector bodies in a call on the government’s response to coronavirus. He reaffirmed the government’s commitment to supporting councils to focus their efforts on the priority area of social care, providing vital support for vulnerable people and supporting their local economies — read the full press release on MHCLG’s website. NALC is still pressing for clarification on how some of these changes not covered in the Coronavirus Act will be applicable to local councils.

Accounts and Audit (coronavirus) Amendment Regulations 2020

On 6 April, the government brought regulations into force to change audit deadlines – you can read more in the local council activity and operations section.

On 30 March, NALC responded to proposed regulations from the government which would extend the deadline for the inspection/publication requirements in the Accounts and Audit Regulations 2015. Their communication stated that at that point the government was not currently planning to amend the requirements for smaller authorities. NALC has undertaken a rapid engagement exercise seeking input from the local council sector, including representatives from different sizes of local councils, county associations, SLCC, and also from the Association of Drainage Authorities and National Audit Office.

Read NALC’s response on behalf of the local council sector

Local council meetings

On 2 April, the government published The Local Authorities and Police and Crime Panels (Coronavirus) (Flexibility of Local Authority and Police and Crime Panel Meetings) (England and Wales) Regulations 2020. On the same day, NALC wrote to the government to feedback issues and queries related to the new regulations — read NALC’s comments on behalf of the local council sector.

Government Job Retention Scheme

The government have introduced a scheme to allow some employers to furlough certain members of staff and reclaim a proportion of their salaries — find out more about the scheme.

The government’s Job Retention Scheme is available to public sector organisations and the guidance states that “the government expects that the scheme will not be used by many public sector organisations, as the majority of public sector employees are continuing to provide essential public services or contribute to the response to the coronavirus outbreak”.

At this point, we should highlight strongly that NALC feels that the government guidance at this point is not clear on whether local councils could reclaim salaries from furloughed employees or not. We will need more detail from the government to clarify this situation.

It would appear to be possibly relevant for those staff whose jobs have fallen away as a result of the restrictions being put in place to fight COVID-19 and where they cannot be reallocated to other roles. At the heart, the Job Retention scheme is to help avoid redundancies. For example, where a local council has community facilities that have been closed as a result of COVID-19, there will be no income from these facilities to pay for the caretaker or other staff who run the facilities.

So where local councils have staff who are unable to work in their current roles, where that role is funded from income other than precept, and they are unable to be redeployed to another role to support the response to Coronavirus, the council may wish to consider furloughing those staff with the hope of being able to reclaim a portion of their salaries. But at this stage, NALC could not be certain that the council would be successful in claiming back that salary.

If a local council is considering furloughing any staff then NALC and HR Service Partnerships (HRSP) have produced template letters for members to aid this process.

Template letter asking to be furloughed

Template letter to confirm furloughed arrangements

HRSP has also uploaded FAQ’s on their website this morning with the latest updates on the scheme.

Statutory Sick Pay

The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020 were made on 12 March 2020 and came into force on 13 March. They amended the Statutory Sick Pay (General) Regulations 1982 and provide that statutory sick pay will be available to anyone isolating themselves from other people in such a manner as to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus disease, in accordance with the guidance published by Public Health England, NHS Scotland or Public Health Wales and effective on 12 March 2020, and by reason of that isolation is unable to work. The government has said that the Statutory Sick Pay will be payable from the first day (not, as previously from day four) and that employers with fewer than 250 employees will be able to reclaim the cost from the government up to a maximum of two weeks’ Statutory Sick Pay.

The Secretary of State is required to keep the operation of the Regulations under review and they will cease to have effect eight months after they come in to force.

National Joint Council guidance on working from home

On 17 March the National Joint Council for local government services has issued guidance for councils and council staff on working from home.

HR-related issues

NALC’s partner HR Services Partnership are keeping their website updated with issues related to the coronavirus.

Allotments

The National Allotment Society has issued useful guidance on how to manage allotments in accordance with government regulations.

Are national events and celebrations being affected?

Many local councils were planning to get involved in national events and celebrations such as Great British Spring Clean and VE Day 75, these have been postponed.

In the meantime Keep Britain Tidy have launched their #LoveWhereYouLive campaign, as in the current climate a lot of activities that communities do are not possible, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still love where we live.

The national commemorations to mark VE Day 75 on 8 May are being scaled back and the government is working on new plans to ensure the nation can still thank the Second World War generation on VE Day in May and provide the fitting tribute they deserve. Local councils are instead being encouraged to support local digital solutions for celebrations. Once this immediate crisis abates, communities may also be encouraged to turn their attention to planning for VJ day on 15 August. The Great British Spring Clean has also decided to postpone its annual event and relaunch later in the year, with the postponed campaign hoping to take place between 11 and 27 September 2020. For these and other events, local councils should check the relevant event website for the latest information and updates.

Coronavirus and cybersecurity

Two of NALC’s partners have provided advice for local councils on cybersecurity. Microshade has provided additional advice for local councils as fraudsters are exploiting the spread of coronavirus to facilitate various types of fraud and cybercrime and BHIB Councils Insurance has developed cybersecurity tips to help keep local councils and their staff to stay secure and keep online data safe.

CiLCA deadlines pushed back

In light of the ongoing COVID-19 situation, all CiLCA candidates who are currently registered will be granted an additional three months to complete their portfolio. This extension will be automatically granted for all candidates and you will not need to contact the CiLCA administrator. This automatic extension will be reviewed at the end of June. In the meantime, all registered candidates who have attended relevant training should continue to submit work when it has been completed to an appropriate standard. New candidates are reminded that they should not register for CiLCA until they have a training programme in place.

Data protection and GDPR

On 12 March the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) released a statement to reassure organisations seeking to support their communities at this time. It includes this information:

“Data protection and electronic communication laws do not stop Government, the NHS or any other health professionals from sending public health messages to people, either by phone, text or email as these messages are not direct marketing. Nor does it stop them using the latest technology to facilitate safe and speedy consultations and diagnoses. Public bodies may require additional collection and sharing of personal data to protect against serious threats to public health.

The ICO is a reasonable and pragmatic regulator, one that does not operate in isolation from matters of serious public concern. Regarding compliance with data protection, we will take into account the compelling public interest in the current health emergency.”

To support this statement the ICO has also produced further guidance around data protection and coronavirus.

Neighbourhood planning

The government has provided guidance where the coronavirus situation impacts on neighbourhood planning including the referendum process, decision-making, oral representations for examinations, and public consultation — find it by scrolling to the very bottom of the neighbourhood planning guidance.

Playgrounds

BHIB Councils Insurance has developed advice on expectations of local councils regarding playgrounds and outdoor fitness equipment.

 

Posted Friday, 1st July 2022