Nearly everything changed on March 23 last year for Swindon Borough Council.

But it also stayed the same.

With the announcement by prime minister Boris Johnson of the first national lockdown last spring – with everyone told to stay indoors in nearly all possible circumstances – the local authority found itself responsible for identifying, tracing, contacting, and providing help for people who suddenly were not able to go out, shop for themselves or have family members neighbours of friends round to help.

The council found itself trying to provide the most basic needs for people – food, toiletries, shelter.

But it also had to try to carry on with its other work – collecting the bins, maintaining the roads, keeping up its housing stock, dealing with planning applications, looking after vulnerable adults and children.

One of its first jobs and one of the biggest was to find places for the elderly and vulnerable so they could be released from Great Western Hospital.

The council’s cabinet member for adults' services Brian Ford said: “It wouldn’t be going too far to say that we emptied GWH.

"We wanted to get as many people out of the hospital as quickly as possible – the watchword was protecting the NHS.

“We worked really hard with all the care homes, every home had their own individual officer assigned so they could get help and advice straight away, and we had to make sure they all had enough PPE.”

Elsewhere in the council workers were setting up teams of staff and volunteers to call everyone who was classed as vulnerable and check if they needed help.

Hundreds of people were given emergency financial assistance and thousands of food parcels were sent out – either by the council itself, or by volunteer groups coordinated by the council and a volunteer committee.

The government told councils to get all rough sleepers off the streets under its Everybody In programme. Swindon used money from Whitehall to work with the Great Western Hotel near the railway station to offer a home to 22 rough sleepers.

That initiative has continued after the central funding stopped in summer.

One area where council staff did not stop face-to-face contact during lockdowns was social workers visits to children and their families. Visits continued, in gardens or open spaces where necessary, and using masks and social distancing.

That continuation of contact was praised by Ofsted in a special report on social services and the pandemic.

Cabinet member in charge of children’s services Mary Martin said: “We continue to provide effective services during the pandemic despite the challenges colleagues are facing.

“The whole team should be extremely proud of the work they are doing, and I am sure it will only inspire them to continue to go the extra mile to support vulnerable children and to keep them safe.”

Most of the staff at the council have been able to work from home – but services such as waste collection, which carried on throughout 2020 and this year needed adjustment. Crews used additional vehicles to make rounds to avoid three cramming into the cab of a lorry together.

And after a break of a few weeks, council meetings returned.

Using virtual meeting technology every council committee is now back to a standard meeting schedule – with only a few delays and technical issues along the way.

Council leader David Renard praised the work he has seen across the authority.

He said: “I have felt immense pride seeing the response from staff across the council and the continued support they have provided to our residents through this challenging time.

“Since March last year, more people have relied on council services than ever before and so the support provided by council staff has never been more important, particularly to those residents who are most at risk.

"Looking back over the past year, I am extremely proud of what has been achieved and the support we have provided to our residents.”

Financial fears

At the start of the crisis the government’s minister for local government Robert Jenrick told local authorities to ‘spend what it takes’ to keep their people safe.

That extra spending met a huge double whammy because the income councils like Swindon's received was also hugely diminished. Businesses were given business rate holidays, tenants and council taxpayers who lost their jobs or who were furloughed during lockdowns, or who had to self-isolate were less able to pay rent to their council tax.

With most people staying at home, income from the town’s car parks and from closed attractions like Steam Museum or the country parks was almost nil, and all the while the costs incurred by the council were increasing.

Every month the cabinet member for finance reported to his colleagues on the state of the budget. At one point he said the authority was looking at an overspend of £15m on a budget of £149m.

Coun Russell Holland always said he was hopeful of central government help.

That did in fact come to pass and the council has managed to balance its books with the help of £18m of extra government funding.

At that point Coun Holland admitted that while he always expressed optimism about such help, there were times when he wondered whether the council’s finances would be able to survive the crisis.

But, in setting this year’s budget Coun Holland said the effects of the pandemic and the long-term effects of long-Covid may yet have a significant impact on future finances.

Cycle lanes 

A DAILY walk, cycle or run became a lifeline for thousands of people in Swindon during the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic.

With many fewer cars on the roads, it was easy to find the space to pass each other. That became harder as summer went on and restrictions were loosened.

The council was given £200,000 in early summer from the government’s emergency active travel fund to make improvements for walking and cycling.

Most of the schemes and plans were well received – like the Old Town railway path and the bike lane on Kingsdown Lane between Highworth Road and Turnpike Lane.

On the flipside, barriers were placed along the lane divider on Commercial Road, making the right-hand lane a two-way cycle lane, and restricting motors to the left.

Traders and road users, including some cyclists, weren’t keen. Deliveries to businesses meant vans parked in the only vehicle lane blocking it, and cars trying to get out of side roads had to cross the new cycle lane.

The experiment lasted only a few days – but the council says it has not abandoned a plan for Commercial Road, it is just taking its time to come up with a new scheme.