The decisions and plans made over the past three months as part of the Council’s response to the current pandemic were reviewed at a meeting of the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee last week.

Following the establishment of its Covid-19 Group on 3 March, Surrey County Council declaring an emergency on 19 March and the government moving the country to lockdown on 23 March, the Council focussed resource on maintaining key services and protecting vulnerable groups within the borough. Many non-essential services closed overnight. The Committee heard that the organisation’s agile response was accelerated thanks to robust new IT systems and equipment brought about by the ongoing Future Guildford Transformation Programme to modernise and better meet the needs of its residents. The technology enabled most office-based staff to be fully working at home within days. The Council also played its part at a national level by hosting and providing assistance at the county’s Welfare Hub for shielded residents at Spectrum Leisure Centre.

Chairman of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Cllr Paul Spooner says: ‘As a council we are committed to improving our decision-making process through the Overview and Scrutiny system and being as transparent as possible. Understanding how we have been meeting the needs of our residents,  in particular those at risk and vulnerable, together with the multi-million-pound financial impact the current crisis will have on the Council, are key examples of how we must continue to challenge our judgements and recommendations from specialist officers and elected councillors to ensure we are making the right choices in these uncertain and challenging times.’

He adds: ‘I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all staff for their incredible efforts over the past few months – I am pleased to confirm that after a healthy debate and discussion the Committee was very supportive that the right actions have been taken in our response so far.’

Leader of the Council Caroline Reeves also praised officers for their hard work and dedication since March. She said: ‘I am so proud of how officers responded so swiftly from a standing start to maintain our essential services and provide new ways to support and collaborate to care for our residents during the outbreak. My sincere thanks goes out to them all. The pandemic has brought renewed respect and value for our public services. We’ve been overwhelmed with the community spirit shown throughout Guildford and the incredible work of so many existing and new voluntary groups – and it will be this sense of altruism that will be vitally important as we begin to look toward recovery.’

Managing Director, James Whiteman led the presentation which detailed how a new community helpline was set up in days and has now made over 15,500 telephone calls to the most vulnerable residents – as well as receiving over 3400 calls. Nearly 1600 food parcels and over 13,500 meals on wheels have been delivered. 56 homeless people were placed in accommodation and over 46,000 information leaflets were hand-delivered to households. 87 Council staff were redeployed to welfare hubs and services, 1384 grants had been made to local businesses, totalling £18,570,000 and 984 properties were granted a business rate holiday totalling over £40,000,000. Mr Whiteman described how despite such adversity staff took great pride in serving Guildford’s residents and morale was kept up by sharing lockdown stories and photos with each other via the staff intranet while publicly frontline staff were celebrated on corporate social media channels.

Of those originally homeless or rough sleeping, 32 of the 56 who had been placed in temporary accommodation have since been rehoused on a more permanent basis. Several hotels used for temporary accommodation have agreed to continue to provide rooms, whilst the new 24-hour Number Five homeless hub, on York Road, has provided additional capacity. In addition, the Council will be looking to implement longer-term solutions for more at-risk individuals. A portion of funding from the Council’s three-year Rough Sleeper Initiative may be brought forward to help ensure that no rough sleepers are left without accommodation in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The Overview and Scrutiny Committee examines decisions made by the Council’s Executive or Lead Councillors. In doing so, it can undertake reviews and in-depth investigations to provide advice and recommendations which can contribute to policy development. It also reviews council services to ensure customer satisfaction and value for money.