Here is an update on what I’ve been doing in the last two months since my previous blog.
Of course, during that time, everything has changed. COVID-19 has come to the UK, and to Congleton. The ‘lockdown’ has happened. Friends, relatives and colleagues have been sick and most have recovered. Some of us have lost loved ones. In these unprecedented times, we have seen great sorrow and great kindness, and learned a new appreciation for our NHS and our front-line workers in social care, healthcare, retail, delivery and our public services.
As Chair of the Community & Environment Committee, I’ve been involved in the COVID-19 Congleton Town Council emergency effort from the start. I have also been moving forward on several other projects.
The Congleton COVID-19 Response
I have been blown away by the response of our Council Officers to this crisis. While some other town and parish councils around the country apparently slowed or stopped work, the Congleton Town Council team has been working at 200% (and round the clock) throughout this period. At the lockdown, in a heartbeat they started working from home and re-planning how to do their work, as well as how to support Congleton through COVID-19. The Officers work behind the scenes and are not often in the public eye but they deserve huge credit for keeping Congleton going and working tirelessly to help residents at this difficult time. They are some of the heroes of the hour. Thank you!
I also have to mention the people of Congleton who have stepped up to volunteer. Shaun Radcliffe immediately got a team together to ensure that emergency food supplies were available those who needed it, and continues to run a food hub. Organisations like the Partnership, the U3A, Community Projects, the Old Sawmill, Ruby’s fund, the churches and many more have joined forces with some Councillors in a ‘Coronavirus Community Team’ to co-ordinate support and ensure it is targeted to those who need it most. Neighbours have shopped for neighbours; volunteers have befriended isolated people with a friendly phone call. I take my hat off to them all. Thanks – you are amazing!
The CTC response to the crisis, and my role in it, is outlined below.
- A telephone helpline that people can call to get initial help and support. We can point callers in the right direction e.g. if they need help with shopping or medication, if they are lonely or if they are concerned about their health. I am one of a team of volunteers on this, and I do 2 ‘shifts’ a week. The number to call is 01260 541 815 and the helpline is open every day from 11am-7pm. This is run by Officer Ruth Burgess, who is also doing her ‘day job’ of managing Streetscape.
- A section of the Congleton Town Council Website including information such as how to get shopping delivered, financial advice, access to doctors and pharmacies. This has been the project of Officers Jackie MacArthur and Martha Hayes with the help of some councillors. I have written some of the content including the Frequently Asked Questions, Getting and Giving Help and the Staying Safe at Home pages.
- Emergency Support co-ordination with Cheshire East’s ‘People Helping People’ service, including food packs for those in greatest need. This has been set up by Chief Officer David McGifford. Town Hall Manager Mark Worthington and team have worked round the clock to ensure people get emergency food and also helped Shaun Radcliffe get his food hub operation going in the Town Hall initially, before it moved to The Vale Club. The Town Hall is also distributing ready meals to people who normally attend the luncheon clubs in Congleton. I have not been involved with this directly, and include it for completeness. I did set up a local online form ‘Neighbours Helping Neighbours’ on the CTC website which is just for Congleton but has added to our list of volunteers.
- Congleton Coronavirus Community Support Group on Facebook.This was set up by two brilliant volunteers, Lisa Brooks and Emma Hall, who subsequently asked the Town Council to administer and moderate it. It now has 2500 members and is a great place for people to ask for and offer help. I’m one of the admins/moderators of this group, and posts are moderated to avoid spam and ensure it is for those with a connection to Congleton.
- Ongoing Communication of the support available through the Congleton Chronicle, a special issue of Bear Necessities, posters around the town and social media posts.
- A Community Leaders Group meets regularly (at first 3 times a week but now weekly) to ensure that efforts are co-ordinated, help and support is properly targeted, and we are planning effectively for the next phase.
Congleton COVID-19 Community Leaders
Council Business During COVID-19
Congleton Town Council had an emergency meeting at the start of the lockdown and agreed that the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and the Chairs of the Committees (Community & Environment, Planning, Town Hall, Assets & Services and Finance & Policy) would meet regularly with some devolved emergency powers to keep Council business going. This has been working with wider Council consultation and decision-making by email. Our Chief Officer, David McGifford, has made this work well, and is now planning how to run all our meetings virtually going forward so we can get back to a regular committee meeting schedule. More on this shortly.
Meanwhile several of the Working Groups that I am involved with have continued to work, using Zoom. I helped them, the Council and several other groups in the town get up to speed with Zoom – it is how I run my own digital business, Kanga Health Ltd.
I’m still open for business!
If you want to chat to me about what I am doing for COVID-19, my work in the Council (or about the Women’s Equality Party), we usually have an informal ‘open house’ in the Young Pretender on the second Monday each month at 7.30pm, and we have replaced this with an informal Zoom meeting. The next one is on the 11thMay – join here.
What I’ve been doing
In addition to the COVID-19 direct support work, I’ve been moving ahead, with colleagues, on a number of initiatives that are priorities in the CTC business plan, as follows:
There is evidence that the lockdown is enabling a domestic abuse disaster. We already had an ‘epidemic’ of domestic abuse in the UK with 2 women murdered a week by a partner or ex-partner, and in the first four weeks of lockdown this rate doubled to 4 a week.
Agencies working in this field nationally are reporting much higher volumes of calls to helplines, and this is reflected in Cheshire East with calls levels up to 3 times the norm for this time of year to the ‘Hub’ number (0300 123 5101). Although calls are already up, experts also expect there to be ‘pent-up demand’ as situations are escalating in some homes but the victims do not feel able to call helplines and cannot easily escape to seek help and advice.
I have been working on a number of fronts to support this effort. New posters that have been produced by myCWA (our local domestic abuse service provider) will be going up around Congleton. We had a White Ribbon emergency working group meeting (Congleton TC is seeking White Ribbon accreditation), and as a result I wrote a new page for our website – Staying Safe at Home, featuring some new myCWA and White Ribbon support materials to help families avoid crisis.
I hope that this time has helped shine a light on this ongoing crisis in our society and we can ramp up services to support families once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. We were already working to have more services based in Congleton and I hope we can achieve this in the months to come.
Our Congleton Health & Wellbeing Working Group has a priority of supporting adult mental health, and the COVID-19 epidemic has also shone a light on the importance of mental health services and mental wellbeing.
At the start of the crisis we had an emergency H&W Group meeting and generated a number of ideas that have become part of the CTC COVID response, and subsequently we had a session focusing on Mental health with representatives from Visyon and SwANs present.
In the short term we are signposting on our website and social media to the new NHS mental health helpline (0300 303 3972) and other resources, and we have added more information on our Mental Wellbeing Page.
The Working Group would like to support ongoing mental health support for those who need it and we are in discussions with other agencies about this. Longer-term we were already lobbying for a ‘crisis café’ in Congleton and still hope to achieve this.
We had an excellent workshop in the Town Hall with some childcare experts – parents, nursery providers, Cllr Suzy Firkin and others – just before the lockdown. It was a very productive session.
The key issues we identified with childcare in Congleton are:
- Cost and flexibility of childcare options provide a barrier to (mostly) women working
- This reduces opportunities for fathers to be more involved parents, mothers (especially single ones) to return to work, and employers to tap into local talent to fill jobs.
- The government allowances are not adequate to cover the costs of providing childcare
- Parents and employers are often unaware of facilities and financial options
This led to a brainstorm of solutions, and we prioritised some ‘quick wins’ and some potentially more ambitious solutions:
- Provide a hub of information for parents, providers and employers
- Council to role-model childcare good practice in our own organisation
- Work with local employers to encourage them to support parents with flexible working and childcare options
- Investigate a Congleton workplace nursery scheme
Further work is proceeding on several of these ideas. Many thanks to the participants for their fabulous contribution to this, and for coming out under the cloud of COVID pre-lockdown (a good deal of hand sanitiser was used!)
The Gender Pay Gap
I’ve done an analysis of the Gender Pay Gap in Cheshire East, based on the statutory reporting that the government requires of organisations greater than 250 employees. Not all companies have reported yet because the government allowed a reporting deadline extension due to COVID-19. You can see a summary in the graph.
Median Gender Pay Gap Cheshire East 2019 (companies reporting on time)
Even with the partial reporting, nothing much has changed year on year. Cheshire East Council itself has a bigger gap than the region in general, and like many big organisations does have a promising-looking strategy to address it. Whether that strategy is being implemented effectively is in question given the (lack of) progress over the past 3 years.
Addressing this is in the CTC Business Plan for Congleton and I intend to continue to meet with local businesses to see what we might put in place. Cllr Suzy Firkin works in this area and, I’m happy to say, is keen to work together with me on this.
As we applaud our ‘front-line’ workers each Thursday I reflect that many of them – especially in social care – are doing a life-saving job for a ridiculously low wage. The gender pay gap is at least in part due to the fact that society does not value this work that is mostly done by women.
The Congleton Green Working Group is progressing with Zoom meetings, and Barry Speed, one of our members, did a great job starting to estimate CTC’s carbon footprint. At our last meeting we had some advice on measuring the carbon footprint of procurement activities and this needs to be factored in.
Meanwhile we are keen to take Congleton Sustainability Group’s ‘Sustainable Living in Congleton’ (SLIC) training out to all residents as an eLearning course so that people can accelerate their ‘green living’ from home.
I wrote the brief for this and we are currently evaluating vendor proposals.
Our Integrated Sustainable Transport Working Group has met to discuss the bus funding that Cheshire East is getting and discuss ideas for Congleton. I put together a list of ideas including increasing the frequency of bus services, running them into the evenings and on Sundays, reducing the cost of fares and marketing buses as a convenient and cheap alternative to car use.
The working group added some builds and I sent the ideas list to Cheshire East as input to their thinking when putting together bus proposals.
The working group has also considered some ideas for moving towards being a ‘Living Streets’ town, and in particular has expressed support for a ‘20’s Plenty’ proposal in Cheshire East, whereby residential streets have a 20mph speed limit. This will come back to our full council for consultation if the idea is accepted at CEC.
Congleton Museum Trust
The Museum’s ‘comms calendar’ that I created kicked off in March with regular posts on ‘heritage days’ through the month. The results were very promising with Facebook page reach up more than 100% and engagement (Likes, Comments, Shares) up 400% month-on-month. The posts also went onto Instagram and Twitter.
Congleton Museum has over 200 followers on Instagram
The lockdown has caused some interruption to this but still some posts are going out and getting good engagement, which is great when people cannot visit the Museum
In addition, I helped the Museum Trust move their meetings to Zoom, so work is continuing behind the scenes, on both acquiring collections and planning museum events for post-lockdown.
Council Communication and Transparency
The Council’s work is driven and approved by a number of large Committees (such as the one I chair – The Community & Environment Committee) which meet publicly and make all the decisions with public and press scrutiny. Often, however, it makes sense to set up smaller working groups to thrash out issues and brainstorm solutions, before coming to the Committee for a decision.
I proposed at the start of 2020 that we should publish working group information on our website together with any notes of the working group meetings. In the past the working groups have reported to the Committees, which are public meetings, but sometimes it can be difficult to find information about them because it is buried in the full Committee proceedings. The Working Groups were also approving their own meeting notes at the next meeting before it went to full Committee which caused a delay, sometimes of months, before that information was made public.
In the new system I proposed, working groups approve their minutes by email and so they can be fully approved at the very next Committee (typically within a month) and then put separately on the website. In addition, I suggested a web page about each Working Group so the public can see what they are discussing and offer to help if they have specific expertise in that area. I am happy to report that these pages are now going live on the website and you can see them here.
My Meeting Attendance
Overall, my meeting attendance for the two months has been 100% for all council meetings and working groups, either face-to-face or virtually (11 of 11). This is in addition to the COVID-19 Community Leaders’ Group which was 3 times a week at first, going down to once a week.
The Town Council’s remit unfortunately does not include things such as Social Services, Health, Transport – these are the domain of Cheshire East, but we can lobby in these areas.
I am a member of nine other Groups beyond the Council Committees, which meet at regular intervals, typically every couple of months:
Health and Wellbeing Working Group
Anti-Social Behaviour Working Group (Chair)
White Ribbon Working Group
Congleton Integrated Transport Working Group
Congleton Green Working Group
Congleton Museum Trust
Congleton Pride Steering Group – Pride has been postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis as you would expect, but will be back!
Elizabeth’s Group – commemorating Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, Congleton’s Suffragist. We have had to postpone our ‘Elizabeth’s Day’ celebrations at the start of May but Sue Munro, our Chair, has done a fantastic job of keeping the statue campaign alive on social media with videos and other posts.
I am lucky that, through the COVID-19 crisis so far, my ‘day job’ has been extremely busy, because we are a digital business and with a world wide distributed team we we are used to working virtually and using videoconferencing all day. Therefore, for me, life and work goes on, including council work, and I am busier than ever.
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