A year like no other – running a council during a pandemic

Pippa Milne takes up her new post in December.
Pippa Milne, chief executive of Argyll and Bute Council

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A new report has suggested that the coronavirus pandemic is set to cost Argyll and Bute Council up to £12 million – from lost income from harbours and parking fees to unexpected costs such as accommodating homeless people, and ongoing outlays to become coivd-secure. There are hopes the shortfall can be reduced to around £4 million. Ellis Butcher interviews council chief executive Pippa Milne on a year like no other. 

When she stepped up to become chief executive of Argyll and Bute Council in January 2020, little did Pippa Milne know what was coming.

No amount of ‘business continuity or resilience planning’ could have prepared for the first quarter of this new decade. A killer bug running riot across the globe. A UK-ordered lockdown and a multi-billion pound economy screeching to a halt – virtually overnight.

Aged 49, and with nearly three decades of UK-wide local government experience on her CV, Pippa admits: ‘We all have plans and guidance in place for things like a flu pandemic but how it will run and what form it will take, we cannot predict. It’s fair to say none of us have been through anything like this before.’

Yet speaking to me from her home in Crinan, Pippa, drily concedes that the first eight months in the top job have been ‘interesting’.

‘It’s easy to forget now, just how frenetic that time was,’ she said as I ask her to cast her mind back to dark days at the end of March, days sometimes marked by 12 hours of back-to-back video meetings as the coronavirus goalposts kept moving.

Employing a workforce of nearly 5,000 people and providing essential services to 41,500 households, Argyll and Bute Council is the second largest local authority area in the whole of Scotland and its fourth most sparsely-populated. That makes delivering services and managing budgets ‘challenging’ at the best of times.

Headquartered in Kilmory, Lochgilphead, its responsibilities extend from relatively ‘urban’ Helensburgh and Dunoon to 23 island communities, among others. It is the ‘go-to’ organisation for everything from social care to schools and refuse collection, and came under immense pressure as an ever-changing and bewildering mix of guidance and advice was handed down to local councils from upon high – sometimes hourly.

Pippa explained: ‘The council didn’t have a lockdown in the same way as others because things kept running as we tried to support communities and businesses. The vast majority of council staff continued to work all the way through to keep essential services running and re-establish services and to meet the requirements of the new normal.’

She praised the ‘energy, ingenuity and positivity’ she has witnessed this year. She recalled the speed at which the IT department adjusted.

‘In about a week,’ the authority went from around 150 employees being equipped to work from home to more than 1,500, she said.

Staff made the transition ‘seamlessly’ too. At a time when the phones, emails and internet inquiries were red hot – customer services hit the ground running.

Pippa said: ‘We also set up new services – a helpline supporting people with what they needed to do to self-isolate at home and shield. We established a food delivery network service to get vital food parcels out within a couple of weeks.’

What’s more, the council also became the epicentre for thousands of applications and inquiries from local businesses. To head off a wave of collapses, the Scottish and UK Governments dug deep and set up funds for councils to distribute.

While it could easily have resulted in a bureaucratic nightmare, the final tale of the tape shows that Argyll and Bute Council helped distribute £37 million to thousands of businesses in a matter of weeks.

As Pippa explained: ‘Our focus was to get those out as soon as possible and to maximise the number of successful applications.’

She praised the strong links Argyll and Bute Council has with Scotland’s ‘Local Government family’ and the Scottish Government. The mutual ‘support and co-operation’ they provided, all helped, she said. The feedback from the community too has helped inspire her.

‘The councillors have been incredibly supportive during this time and have worked exceptionally hard to engage with their communities.’

High on her list of praise, too, is the third sector – the community and volunteer groups- who donned invisible capes, along with supportive agencies including the police, fire service and coastguard.  ‘We couldn’t have provided the support to those that needed it, without them,’ she said.

‘This year proved that we can work and deliver change at a real pace, although I don’t think I would ever ask my team to try and work at quite that pace again, but we are certainly looking at what different ways of working we can hold on to as we go forward.’

Pippa Milne