Coronavirus ‘baptism of fire’ but council leader sees a brighter future
- Credit: Breckland Council/Ian Burt
The youngest council leader in Norfolk has had, by his own admission, a “baptism of fire” since he took the helm of Breckland Council just over a year ago - but Sam Chapman-Allen sees better days ahead.
A coronavirus outbreak, the way his council works changing overnight, the departure of his chief executive and the possibility of local government reorganisation - it’s been a roller coaster ride for the leader of Breckland Council.
When Mr Chapman-Allen succeeded William Nunn as the council’s leader in May last year, he had no inkling he would find himself, at the relatively young age of 34, leading an authority through the impacts of a global pandemic, with an outbreak on his doorstep.
But the Conservative leader said he feels staff and members at his council rose to the challenge and that dealing with the impact of coronavirus has brought benefits.
He said: “I am so proud of officers and members, of businesses for their fortitude and of the volunteers and charities. “People offering to help others, checking on neighbours they had never previously spoken to, the applause for the NHS - I hope we don’t lose what we gained from all that.
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“I think local government and district councils have reinforced their relevance during this. We have re-engaged with communities where we may have previously lost some contact.”
He said, despite the recent announcement of a return to restrictions, some schemes paused due to the focus on coronavirus could return.
He cited the £1m vulnerability project which aims to tackle ‘county lines’, domestic abuse and violence, mental health issues and loneliness.
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Mr Chapman-Allen said: “If I can look back and say that the programme helped people, changed people’s views or started a conversation, I will be immensely proud of that.”
On the Banham Poultry outbreak, Mr Chapman-Allen said, along with the New Anglia LEP and George Freeman, the council was working to “ensure we get the best possible support package so Banham can survive.”
He admitted the autumn departure of his chief executive Anna Graves would leave a “massive hole” and paid tribute to her work for Breckland and South Holland over the past six years.
But he said recruiting a successor would be paused for the time being. He said: “We will probably bring in some extra capacity, but it would be immensely difficult for a new chief executive to come into the organisations at this time.”
And, with a White Paper on devolution raising the potential for local government reorganisation, Mr Chapman-Allen said it was important to keep an “open mind”.
He said: “We can’t pre-empt what it will look like, but we have got to respond in a positive way. It might not be the best fit for Norfolk and Norfolk and Suffolk, but if the rewards are good enough and we get proper devolution to districts and communities, then I think we should engage positively.
“I hope that we will all be able to see the benefits to residents and it doesn’t become ‘us’ against ‘them’. It shouldn’t be about organisations, but what is best for citizens.”