One year after the WHO declared a pandemic, city council chief executive Nick Eveleigh shares his hopes and concerns for Chelmsford with City Life.
Q. How has Chelmsford City Council changed over the last year?
A year ago we were entering the unknown and couldn’t have imagined what was ahead of us all. It’s been incredibly difficult for so many of our residents, families, friends and colleagues. But overall, I think we’ve managed very well as an organisation. Essential services have all continued to run throughout the pandemic with minimal interruption, which we decided at the start would be our central aim for our residents.
People have adapted really quickly, turning their hands to new things and we’ve become more responsive, creative and innovative. At the start of the pandemic, we set up a food hub from scratch in around 48 hours and tailored that service to vulnerable people and over the last year we’ve delivered £45 million pounds worth of business grants to our local businesses with no advance notice and limited instructions from the government.
Our staff have done a brilliant job keeping things going too. Even though there have been bigger workloads when people have been off sick or self-isolating, the bins have been emptied, the streets have been cleaned and our parks have been looked after. But I hope we never have to face any of this again.
Q. What challenges lie ahead as we move into a different phase and things open up again?
I’m looking forward to the recovery phase, but we’ve got a long haul really. As a local authority, our income isn’t going to recover for a long, long time. We’ll have lots of important questions to answer, and the high street has to recover from the pandemic – that’s going to take a long time too.
It will be great if things can get back to normal this summer and we can do things like put on events again, but life isn’t going to be transformed on the 21 June, if the roadmap is followed as expected. It’s just the beginning of this recovery phase.
Q. What are your priorities for the next few months?
This whole period has really highlighted the difference between the haves and the have-nots and deepened inequality. A certain proportion of people have done quite well during the pandemic, but others are on their knees. There will be more redundancies and more people losing their homes as we enter this next phase, so it is going to be a difficult time for some in our city. Part of our social conscience is trying to improve things a bit, and this will be more important than ever in the next few years. I hope Chelmsford as a progressive authority will be at the forefront of that.
We’re seeing people and businesses struggling, and we’ll be looking at whether we can run business fairs, employment fairs for young people, or back to work schemes. Maybe we could do a skills fair for 18 to 24 -year-olds who are out of work, rather than just for pupils who are still at school, which is what we were doing before?
I think we can do quite a lot with business and we can certainly try to encourage some to take on apprenticeships – the city has thousands of homes to build so we’ll see if we can work with the construction industry to get more young people trained up. Certainly one of the things I’m keen to do is put a package together with other businesses to advertise Chelmsford as a place to work and we might pick up firms from London who would like to move to Chelmsford.
We’re also working to help get pubs up and running again and we’re working on bringing some initiatives to Chelmsford that should help independent retailers too – I can’t say much more until it’s ready but I hope we can make an announcement in the next few weeks.
Q. What kind of shape is Chelmsford City Council in?
We’ve just balanced our budget for the next financial year and there have been a few tough decisions to make, like introducing parking charges at Hylands Estate. The key issues for us will be whether our car parking and other sources of income recover as we are budgeting for, because if they don’t, we’ve got a bigger problem. We’re assuming that car parking comes back to 80% of pre-Covid levels and that our events and other services like leisure centres, theatres and weddings come back. If all that happens, we’ll have some challenges, but it is deliverable.
The upper tier authorities, like county councils, have got the biggest problem because there’s been a massive rise in the need for adult social care and children’s services. But for district councils – most of us, I think, will bounce back. I would say we’re pretty resilient and compared to a lot of local authorities we’re probably more resilient than most, but we’re still going to have challenges. We’re very reliant on income in Chelmsford, so the whole commuter car park issue is a real concern.
Q. What shifts might we see in the way the council operates?
I don’t see us ever going back to the office in exactly the same way as before and the way in which we interact with customers will probably be more on their terms: this could change our offering in some respects and might allow us to provide services at a time that suits residents better.
For example, we’ve been running council meetings virtually and streaming them, which has allowed more people to attend. We’re waiting for the Government to tell us whether virtual meetings will be allowed in future, but either way, why not stream them so more people can see and access them? I think there will be quite a few developments around that.
The changes of the last year, along with the climate emergency, have pushed our technology forward too – we’ve had to pick up the pace with creating solutions that help teams work together from different locations and help customers remotely, and that’s made us more efficient.
I don’t want people to think that when the pandemic is over, we’ll be doing exactly what we did before.
Q. What are you most looking forward to when restrictions are lifted?
I’ve got a pub just opposite my house and I’m looking forward to going to see the landlady and landlord and having a drink. I can’t believe all the things I took for granted – it’s the little things in life like a trip to your local that make all the difference.
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