How Lib Dem Councils respond to emergencies

For many years I have groused that Conference makes celebrities of our MPs but ignores our Council Leaders, many of whom exercise far more power than their Westminster colleagues.

Ed Davey gets that, not least because some of us in Kingston have been bending his ear for years. He notably asked Ruth Dombey, Leader of Sutton Council (which Lib Dems have held for 35 years or so), to summate on the Carers motion, which was so close to his heart. And he frequently references his wife, Emily, who is the portfolio holder for Housing on Kingston Council.

I am unashamedly reporting on a fringe that not only focussed on local government but also drew on experiences in my own patch. The meeting, held yesterday evening, was run by the Lib Dem group on the Local Government Association, under the title 2020: Managing a crisis and major incidents, from Covid to flooding.

Cllr Ruth Dombey popped up again, ably chairing the session. The panel consisted of the Leaders of York City Council (Keith Aspden) and the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames Council (Caroline Kerr), with portfolio holder colleagues (Darryl Smalley from York and Tim Cobbett from Kingston). They all emphasised that the strong community involvement and partnership working that characterises Lib Dem run Councils put them in a very good position to respond to the Covid crisis.

Prior emergency planning was clearly important; this was not just about resilience but also about working with communities and the voluntary sector. Each Council mobilised over 1000 volunteers and could see the legacy this would give to the future.

Both teams talked about the importance of good communications with the residents and the businesses in their areas, using leaflets, personal letters, email newsletters,  social media and the local radio station.

Tim mentioned the branding adopted for the “Kingston Stronger Together” hub, which emphasised that the Council was working closely with all the key players (including opposition councillors) and the wider community. Under this strapline, Council employees were redeployed to run the volunteer hub alongside the voluntary sector.

In Kingston, councillors saw their role as Community Champions, encouraging informal street networks and setting up street champions who provided collection points for food banks, as well as checking on elderly and vulnerable residents in their wards.

Caroline described the two key Taskforces that were now operating with partners, one focussing on Economic Recovery  and the other on Communities. In fact, the Council is now looking to the future and is consulting on the redevelopment of a leisure centre and on the regeneration of the Guildhall, possibly as a boutique hotel, as a way to help to keep the town centre alive.

While both Councils were very effectively mobilising volunteers and communicating key information during the lockdowns, York has had to face an additional challenge – how to deal with a flooding emergency in January this year in a Covid-secure way. The city had experienced other major flooding incidents in recent years, but some of the strategies could not be used this time. For example, volunteers were unable to go into the homes of people who were shielding and help them move into upstairs rooms; instead vulnerable people were offered hotel rooms.

The overall impression given was of two Council groups who embraced the challenges thrown at them and drew deeply on Liberal Democrat principles to find solutions that respected all those affected and mobilised the goodwill within their local communities.



* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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This entry was posted in Conference.

One Comment

  • Joseph Bourke 21st Mar '21 - 1:56pm

    This is what community politics looks like in action. Real ‘at the coalface’ engagement at a local level.

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