A local councillor’s reflection on the coronavirus crisis

Cllr. Ketan Sheth – Chair of Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee, Brent Council

I want to share something very important with you: for me the coronavirus crisis has been the most difficult period I have experienced as an elected member. I have lost loved ones, felt the distress in local communities and experienced the dislocation in people’s lives as children no longer attend school, workplaces shut and voluntary organisations suspend many of their vital services. So, this is a personal view and reflection on the crisis to date.

Firstly, the situation has underlined the importance of strong communities and resilient third-sector organisations. As elected councillors, we are community leaders and a bridge between the local authority and our residents. During this crisis I, like many of you, have been supporting those individuals and organisations who have been the most affected by what has not only been a health emergency but for some has meant a struggle to get the daily necessities of medicines and food.

Many of you will have been involved in mutual support organisations. In my own borough in the north-west of London there was a groundswell of local residents’ organisations, faith groups and other organisations coming together to support and assist local people. For me, the crisis has also reaffirmed the importance of the voluntary sector. While many of our local third sector organisations had to suspend some of their services or deliver them online or by phone, many have kept offering excellent support to their clients. In Brent, we have many excellent voluntary organisations working with older people, those with disabilities and the homeless; I would also pay tribute to those of our local foodbanks who have worked so hard to meet a basic need for many people in the borough.

Secondly, I would say that crisis has probably been the greatest test faced by the local authority and our local NHS. As the chair of an overview and scrutiny committee, which includes the NHS in its remit, I have built up a close relationship with our local NHS acute trust and commissioners. They have kept me informed about the challenging situation they are facing and how they have worked so tirelessly to respond to patients’ needs and increase capacity. It is clear how hard local authority officers have been working to respond to need in the community and redirect services, particularly for vulnerable adults and children. For all our residents, the council has strived to keep essential services such as rubbish collection going, and while ensuring there is appropriate social distancing in place, the borough’s parks have been invaluable spaces for people to exercise. While we have always been committed to local government and our local NHS working together to improve health, nothing has better illustrated this than people’s use of the parks.

Finally, there is no doubt this crisis has resulted in a seismic change in how local government works. The regulations in the Coronavirus Act allowing for changes in how members and the public can participate in committee meetings have come into effect. And, in an era of videoconferencing, I suspect that what are emergency measures will permanently influence how we work as members in local authority, especially in my own area of overview and scrutiny. These changes, which perhaps could have evolved in local government over years, have dramatically been brought into effect in a few weeks.

This has been a terribly difficult period. I hope that these reflections, and others many elected members will have had, will help us to rebuild for the better when this health emergency ends.

Cllr. Ketan Sheth is a Councillor for Tokyngton, Wembley in the London Borough of Brent. Ketan has been a councillor since 2010 and was appointed as Brent Council’s Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee in May 2016. Before his current appointment in 2016, he was the Chair of Planning, of Standards, and of the Licensing Committees. Ketan is a lawyer by profession and sits on a number of public bodies, including as the Lead Governor of Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust.

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