The important role of local authorities during the coronavirus pandemic

As we struggle to contain and cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the effective work of local authorities in supporting and providing services to their communities will be more important than ever, writes Tiffany Cloynes and Clare Hardy from Geldards.

The difficulties caused by the pandemic will put pressure on the ability of local authorities to deliver services and meet their statutory obligations.  Local authorities are also finding themselves taking on additional activities to ensure that support usually provided by others can continue.  For example, one local authority has temporarily taken on the running of a local foodbank.

In some situations, the difficulties that a local authority might experience in providing a service might be balanced by a corresponding effect on the demand for that service. For example, the ability of local authorities to meet their environmental health responsibilities could be affected by restrictions on the ability of their environmental health officers to move about, enter premises and interact with people.  This is balanced by the fact that premises which officers would usually be expected to inspect are currently closed because of the lockdown.

The legal implications which local authorities will need to consider in fulfilling their responsibilities during the pandemic include:

  • The position regarding outsourced services if the service provider becomes insolvent or gets into difficulty. Local authorities will need to consider the best option to ensure continuity and future provision of services. There are also likely to be questions arising as to the status of staff used for outsourced services and ownership of assets used in the provision of such services.
  • Decision making and democratic accountability. Many local authorities have sensibly decided to postpone face to face meetings for the foreseeable future but they still need to function and the public will still expect there to be transparency of decisions. The Coronavirus Act 2020 has introduced provision for regulations to be made to allow remote attendance at local authority meetings and legislation in Wales had already addressed that. Those involved in the governance of local authorities need to be satisfied that their constitutions are up to date on the details of delegations, recording of decisions and provisions for decisions in times of urgency.
  • Public Procurement. Local authorities may need to procure services, supplies or works at short notice if urgent needs arise or existing suppliers are unable to meet their responsibilities. The Government has issued helpful guidance on the ability to procure quickly.
  • State aid. The European Commission has published details of actions that may be taken by public sector authorities relating to the pandemic that it considers to be outside the scope of state aid control.  Local authorities will however still need to be alert to the potential State aid implications for any of their actions.
  • Meeting statutory obligations. The impact of the pandemic on the availability of workers, access to resources and ability to travel could put pressure on the ability of local authorities to comply with their statutory duties.
  • Personal duties of statutory officers. Officers with personal responsibilities should consider whether they need to appoint a deputy if they have not already done so, in order to prepare for the impact of officers being affected by illness or self-isolation.
  • The responsibilities of local authorities as owners, landlords and tenants of building. Local authorities will be obliged to comply with any relevant legislation, such as health and safety.  The particular responsibilities of local authorities and the services that they provide may mean that the people who use their buildings have particular vulnerabilities.  Local authorities may also be faced with requests for rent concessions and arguments from tenants suggesting that their leases have been frustrated.

Local authorities will have a temporary respite from addressing complaints submitted to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, as the Ombudsman has suspended casework activity which requires information from or action by local authorities or care providers.

Local authorities may also appreciate the general appreciation which members of the public and persons in authority seem keen to express for the work carried out by those who provide public services.

It is to be hoped that this recognition of the importance of public services and the hard work of those who provide them will continue when we return to more normal times.

Tiffany Cloynes
Partner, Geldards.


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