Fife faces reset and re-start' challenge after lockdown

£30m bill and ‘far reaching’ implications
Coronavirus exit strategyCoronavirus exit strategy
Coronavirus exit strategy

Reset and restart - that’s the goal of Fife Council as it prepares for life after lockdown.

But where do you begin?

The impact of coronavirus has touched every aspect of our lives, and the final bill is still being added up.

Co-leaders, David Alexander and David RossCo-leaders, David Alexander and David Ross
Co-leaders, David Alexander and David Ross
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Getting Fife back open for business is critical, but it will emerge into a world of social distancing, and the acceptance that so much must change, possibly for good.

The long road ahead was outlined at last week’s first council committee meeting to be staged since lockdown began in in-March.

It was held online, with members of the policy and co-ordination logging in from home to debate and discuss the key issues.

And there was much to chew over.

Fife Council is staring at a £30m Coronavirus bill, and the impact on its finances could be “far reaching and significant.”

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In plain language, that poses “a significant financial risk to the council” – and the final cost is not yet known.

The implications are far reaching – everything from a catastrophic loss of revenue as buildings and services remain shut, to the growing need to provide help to families at risk, to creating completely new ways of working for many of its 18,000 staff who operate the length and breadth of the Kingdom.

And, if that wasn’t enough, the council still has to work out how – indeed, if – it can implement savings already signed off.

Elaine Muir, director of finance, warned: “The full impact on income will not become apparent for a number of months depending on the impact on the wider Fife economy.”

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The local authority is also acutely aware that its revenue streams could be hit further if Council Tax and rent arrears, and there is a large, and as yet unquantified, bill coming its way from from construction companies following the closure of sites in lockdown. It is legally obliged to pay, and, from the limited number of claims lodged so far, the impact could be significant.

There are also serious fears over how its arms length trusts, which run everything from theatres, museums and libraries to golf courses and leisure centres, will recover after the loss of all events, classes and services following the wholescale closure of every building.

They too face an uncertain future if social distancing continues - the days of full houses at theatres, and packed gyms, may be over for the foreseeable future, potentially making them unviable.

The council is in contact with the organisations – it has provided help to deal with immediate cash flow issues – but says any attempt to mitigate losses “will be extremely difficult where the loss of income is significant.”

Re-starting Fife’s economy hinges on finding answers.

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The council has set up a task force to spearhead the recovery. It’s an eight-strong group featuring three representatives from Labour and SNP – the parties which jointly run the administration - and two from the opposition benches.

It will seek to do what is best for Fife, while also being open to national advice,

Councillor David Ross, co-leader, said: “There are political decisions and policy issues to be made. We will be guided by Scottish Government and UK Government as appropriate, but it is for this council to decide how it applies that advice to Fife.”

Cllr Ross said a small group would ensure clear focus on the region’s priorities as lockdown is eased, and other key officers and councillors would be drafted in as required.”

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Added Cllr Ross: “ This will be a long term process and it won’t be a case of services just returning overnight to what we knew before covid19.“We will have very different priorities as the recovery moves forward and we will continue to follow Scottish Government and public health guidance and direction.

“The council will play a crucial role in continuing to support vulnerable people and our local communities, getting services up and running again, helping to rebuild our local economy and above all trying to keep people safe.”

But all of that comes with one hefty bill – and consequences that could last for generations .

Keith Winter, executive director for enterprise and environment, spelled out the big picture in straight forward terms.

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He warned: “There is a risk that if recovery from covid19 is not effectively managed and co-ordinated, Fife’s communities and Fife Council, as an organisation, are negatively impacted leading to Fife being unable to return to be a great place to live, work, visit and re-invest.”

The council has to move ahead while complying with changing advice from Government – and factor in that the UK and Scottish route maps may not always chime.

The work being done now gives a clear assessment of the extent of the challenges now emerging after nine weeks of lockdown.

The road back will be long, and unfamiliar.

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Thank you

Allan Crow, Editor, Fife Free Press