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How councils are stepping up to the business rates challenge during COVID-19 

If ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, COVID-19 is likely to be the mother of sweeping new working practices and service delivery models for public sector organisations across the UK. In response to travel restrictions, social distancing, office closures and a complete focus on limiting the spread of the virus, many organisations have turned to digital tools to sustain service delivery to citizens at a time of immense pressure. 

For the last decade, public sector organisations have been on a journey to digitally transform their places of work and service delivery models to operate more effectively and cost-efficiently, while striving to keep up with increasing citizen demand and expectation. 

Those organisations are now leaning on this technology and have been able to react and adapt with limited budgets to extremely challenging circumstances. 

Local authorities have had to be more flexible, training employees to deliver services across multiple disciplines. One particularly urgent area has been the delivery of business rates services, following funding of £12.33bn announced by the Government for the Small Business Grants Fund, and a discretionary fund of £617m as a Retail, Hospital and Lesiure top-up. With a wide range of specialist services delivered by local councils, this enormous surge in activity around business rates grants and benefits processing has left some services struggling to cope, causing backlogs and putting the spotlight on the need for resilience now and in future.

Forward-thinking authorities have implemented digital and automated services to streamline the business of revenues and benefits from front-line customer contact and service delivery to back office administration. This has helped councils to focus resources where they are needed most, during a period when the local authorities we work with have now issued just under £1.8bn of the £2.3bn allocated to spend. In just one example, we’ve worked with Hull City Council to implement the business support grant scheme: in the first days of operation, 1,500 claims were received and processed by the team, enabling much needed payments of £22m to be sent out to businesses affected by the pandemic. 

By adopting technologies that help councils to alleviate pressures and improve workforce planning, local government is once again showing its ability to respond in difficult times, providing critical help to local people and businesses and especially those most in need, and now beginning to consider how new ways of working can provide greater resilience to safeguard local services for the future.

Tony Hughes, Civica Executive Director, Local Government