Spotlight: The public-sector response to Covid-19

Impacting on every sector of society from leisure to transport to construction, Covid-19 has radically altered urban life. Future of London spoke to housing, enforcement, planning and regeneration professionals in our network about the impact of the pandemic on the public sector and how they’ve been delivering city services.

Reaching out to vulnerable residents

For many housing teams, the lockdown brought construction of new council homes to a temporary halt and shifted the focus to essential services, such as repairs and finding residents emergency accommodation – often with only a few core staff remaining in the office.

Finding accommodation for rough sleepers has been a key priority for the GLA and local authorities. “We reached out to the rough sleepers in our borough early on; many of them were already vulnerable and isolated,” says Jamie Carswell, Director of Housing & Safer Communities at RB Greenwich.

He’s now working with other councils, the GLA and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) on a London-wide strategy to support rough sleepers as we emerge from lockdown.

For East London’s Poplar HARCA housing association, being based in just one square mile means they know their residents well. “This has helped us respond quickly and find out who needs help more easily,” says Blossom Young, Poplar HARCA Head of Operations.

Staff have been making ‘befriending calls’ to vulnerable residents, and two local community centres have been repurposed as food banks. Working with voluntary sector partners, Poplar HARCA has been delivering 120 grocery packages to residents every week.

Sign in LB Waltham Forest telling people to keep 2 metres apart because of COVID-19
A reminder to residents from LB Waltham Forest about keeping two metres apart. Source: FoL.

Protecting private tenants

With people being forced to spend much more time in their homes during lockdown, concerns are growing for private tenant communities – and enforcement teams have seen a spike in complaints from tenants. “People are more sensitive and worried about things like noise pollution, now that they’re at home all the time,” says Vincent Arnold, Operations Manager at LB Camden.

Trying to get enforcement and environmental health officers into properties in a safe, socially distanced way is challenging. But officers in LB Camden are working closely with adult social care and safeguarding to identify and negotiate with vulnerable tenants so they can get access and resolve issues like leaks or pests.

Clamping down on rogue landlords is also more important than ever. “While many landlords and letting agents are suffering from the economic downturn, the worst ones are capitalising on this crisis and potentially making the pandemic worse,” according to Arnold.

Rogue landlords are renting out undersized rooms, harassing tenants to move during lockdown, illegally evicting tenants, and moving people into overcrowded HMOs.

Last year, LB Camden set up a Rogue Landlord team, which included a Tenancy Relations Officer as well as Housing Enforcement Officers. “Having this already set up and ready to go has been really helpful during this period, because we’re receiving a lot of complaints from tenants,” says Arnold.

Anticipating a second peak of the pandemic in autumn, his team is now working through its ‘excess cold’ cases and liaising with the fuel poverty team. “Excess cold and fuel poverty would make a second lockdown in autumn or winter much worse,” worries Arnold, “so it’s important to start thinking about that now.”

Sign in a shop window saying it's closed because of Covid-19
Shops and businesses across London remain closed due to Covid-19. Source: Duncan C on Flikr.

Supporting the local economy

We don’t yet know the full impact of Covid-19 on London’s economy, but it’s clear that many of the capital’s shops and businesses are struggling to survive. “As a landlord, Poplar HARCA has been putting together a package of support for our commercial tenants – many of whom are also residents,” says Young.

This has included temporarily suspending credit control, not charging interest on late rent payments and helping local businesses access government support. Young and her team have also been liaising with NHS trusts about using Poplar Works, a workspace and training site for fashion industry start-ups, to produce much-needed personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns.

“What will our high streets look like as we emerge from lockdown – and beyond?” asks Young. “The road to recovery is potentially a very long one, but this is an opportunity to reshape local economies. As well as offering practical support, we need to help local businesses be more resilient in the future.”

Moving planning online

At the end of March, MHCLG Chief Planner Steve Quartermain told local authorities to continue providing the “the best service possible in these stretching times and prioritise decision-making to ensure the planning system continues to function, especially where this will support the local economy.” He called on them to be pragmatic but to take an innovative approach in order to continue their service.

Balancing pragmatism with innovation has been key to RB Kensington & Chelsea’s approach to planning. “We’re looking at the resources we’ve got and using them in the best way we can, without losing sight of the bigger strategic picture,” says Jonathan Wade, Head of Spatial Planning.

RB Kensington & Chelsea was the first planning authority in London to host an entirely virtual planning committee, using Microsoft Teams. And they’re encouraging residents to make planning applications through their online portal, providing as much information and as many photos as possible to reduce the need for site visits.

Engaging with communities

Although moving planning online has enabled RB Kensington & Chelsea to continue processing planning applications, it has its limitations – particularly when it comes to public engagement. The borough is home to a large over-60s population, many of whom can’t or don’t use computers. And, in light of the Grenfell tragedy, the council has pledged to engage with all of its local communities, especially vulnerable residents, in a more meaningful way.

“At the beginning of lockdown, community engagement with planning was on hold,” says Wade. “But now that we recognise that social distancing is here to stay for some time, the challenge is ensuring virtual engagement is taken to as wide an audience as possible, particularly those harder to reach groups. And where this isn’t possible, we’re actively looking at socially-distanced alternatives.”

Future of London’s Community engagement in a Covid-19 world webinar explored some of the ways in which public and private-sector organisations have engaged with communities during lockdown, particularly regarding planning consultations.

This has included video calls and presentations with community groups, virtual site tours and exhibitions, as well as more traditional mailouts. “I hope that the way councils and other organisations are engaging with communities in lockdown will result in better public engagement in the post-Covid world,” says Neil Sinden, Director of CPRE London.

Billboard with construction site behind
As lockdown restrictions ease, construction sites have begun to reopen across the capital. Source FoL.

Tackling digital exclusion

The question of digital exclusion extends beyond planning and community engagement. Lockdown has made us more reliant on technology than ever before; for work, home schooling, socialising and so on. But people need smart devices and good broadband to access this.

Like lots of organisations, Poplar HARCA has been offering lots of support to residents online, like cooking and interactive art classes, live-streamed gigs and remote one-to-ones with youth workers. But staff have also identified residents who don’t own smart devices and loaned them tablets, to help them access online activities and support.

“The lockdown has made us much more aware of the issue of digital exclusion and the need for everyone to have access to really affordable – or maybe even free – broadband,” says Young.

Re-starting homebuilding

In a recent OnLondon piece, Deputy Mayor for Housing Tom Copley wrote “Covid-19 is exacerbating the capital’s housing crisis.” The continued need for more housing, particularly affordable housing, is why Carswell is keen to re-open construction sites and re-start homebuilding in RB Greenwich. But this has resulted in some tricky conversations with residents.

“Although the public might not see construction as essential work, it will be a catastrophe if we don’t start building homes again soon,” he asserts. “The knock-on effect of sites being closed means that there will be a lot more people on our housing waiting lists in three to six months’ time.”

The pandemic has also raised questions about what sort of housing we should be building. Given that many essential workers are amongst society’s lowest paid, there are calls for the private, public and charitable sectors to build genuinely affordable homes for essential workers. London’s G15 group of housing associations has published a report outlining how these Homes for Heroes could be delivered.

Entrance to tube station
As more Londoners go back to work, TfL are putting in measures to maintain social distancing. Source: FoL.

Reinventing working practices

For large public-sector organisations, adapting to remote working, and having to rapidly improve and upgrade IT systems, has been challenging. “We’ve had to both re-establish our operations and reinvent our working practices, so that staff can easily work from home,” says Carswell. “But it’s revealed just how resourceful and resilient staff are, and I’m very proud of them.”

Supporting staff and paying extra attention to their wellbeing has also been a top priority; as colleagues balance work with other personal commitments, or cope with being on their own, or, sadly, lose loved ones to the pandemic.

One of the big questions people are beginning to ask across sectors is whether the way we work has changed for good. Will remote and flexible working become much more common in the public-sector post Covid-19? Poplar HARCA, for example, is already reviewing its future working practices.

Learning from crisis

As London begins to emerge from lockdown, local authorities are increasingly turning their attention to economic recovery and re-starting non-essential services. But across the city and the UK, there’s an increasing desire for ‘back to better’ rather than ‘back to normal’.

How can we make sure rough sleepers don’t end up back on the streets? How can we address longstanding health inequalities, given the disproportionate impact Covid-19 has had on London’s BAME communities? And, as several panellists asked during our Councils & the Climate Emergency event, how do we make sure this much-needed economic renewal is as green as possible?

Future of London’s Learning from Crisis programme is tackling these tough questions. Through webinars, workshops, podcasts and articles, we’re working across sectors to explore how fellow practitioners are dealing with the current crisis – and, crucially, how we can emerge from it into a better future.

To find out more about the approaches here, or if you have a new initiative or idea for an FoL Spotlight, get in touch with Sophie Nellis.

To get involved in the #LearningFromCrisis programme, contact Lisa Taylor.