This week the Chief Executive and the Leader of Falkirk Council sat down with The Falkirk Herald to look back over the past year and discuss what lies ahead. Here’s a summary of what was said.
Q: What has 2020 highlighted to you?
Cecil Meiklejohn, Leader of Falkirk Council, said: “One thing 2020 has shown is how resilient and adaptable we are. Over the past 10 months we have rolled up our sleeves and got on with it. That is a great credit to our communities and staff.
“As an organisation, I think we have come through the pandemic much stronger than we were. We have been very clear and focused on what our priorities are, and while dealing with COVID we have achieved a lot.
“We succeeded in negotiating our Growth Deal and agreed investment in our town centre, both are critical to our recovery, and we have modernised services and moved to more flexible working, which has brought much opportunity.”
Q. What are the high and low points of this year?
Cecil: “The high point has to be the strength of our communities, particularly what they delivered in the first few weeks of our initial lockdown, and the sustained approach they have taken. That puts us in one of the best possible positions going forward, as we have some great community bases that will help sustain communities.
“The low point is the number of deaths that we have had across the Falkirk area, due to having a high care home population, and the impact that has had on all our care staff.”
Q. What are the main lessons learnt?
Kenneth Lawrie, Chief Executive, said: “I think we have learned, in times of pressure and stress, we can do things very well. We can step up and make a difference and we can do it at pace and with purpose. That has worked for us and the communities we serve.
“What is really important is that we hold onto this new normal. We don’t want to slip back to being what we were. For all the suffering and difficulties, we need to build on the positive and continue to work with communities and within communities themselves.”
Q. What service changes will people see in the short term?
Kenneth: “All the work we have undertaken up to this point, including getting equipment out to children and helping with issues such as broadband, has put us in a strong position to deal with the most immediate and significant challenge on the horizon – the change in educational requirements.
“Falkirk has been surrounded by areas that have consistently had higher levels of infection and, as of this weekend, we have one of the lower rates of infection in Scotland. In the whole time since the schools went back in August, we’ve had fewer than 70 teachers and children become infected out of a school and teacher population of over 25k.
"That’s a real testament to how things have been done in schools and the care and the dedication of the staff there. And, indeed the fact, pupils have obviously worked with that and that is really impressive.
“The priority will be to get education back into a great position after January and we have the knowledge and ability to do that now.”
Q. How quickly will we see the benefits of the Growth Deal?
Kenneth: “It’s a 10-year programme, and we hope to have Heads of Terms signed by the end of March with the beginning of actual spend at least six months after finalising projects.”
Cecil: “On the back of the decisions made through the Investment Zone and Town Centres, we want to attract private investment into the Falkirk area. While that will take time to follow through, it will provide us with a platform to create jobs in a post-COVID environment. That will be quite critical.”
Q. Anything else to add?
Kenneth: “We will have a pivotal role in helping support the delivery of the vaccination programme. We don’t have the full details, and it is at the very early stages, but the rollout will be a huge logistical exercise and local government wants to play its role in making that a success.
“Financially we are also under an enormous amount of pressure. We don’t know the full impact of that on local government, but some of the changes we have made - including home working and working closer with communities - can only be of assistance to us in dealing with the scale of that financial challenge.
“2021 is not going to be easy, but I am sure it will be better than 2020, although the first few months will be challenging, there’s no doubt about that.”