For many of us, COVID-19 has been a time of anxiety; about our community, our residents and our country, about our council and the people who work for and with us. But it has also been a time of positive reaffirmation.
For me, one of the most positive experiences has been the way in which the Council's long-standing and firmly embedded relationship with the voluntary and community sector has helped to steer us through these difficult times. We had, perhaps, taken "The Sutton Way" for granted. But I have learned again during this pandemic just how important it is and how valuable the partnerships forged in less stressful times have been under the pressure of the pandemic.
As we saw Lockdown descending on us, the Council gathered (virtually) the key voluntary partners together and my first statement was a joint one with Community Action Sutton, Age UK Sutton and the Volunteer Centre Sutton, reassuring our community that we were working together to get them through this terrible crisis. Those relationships were and remain every bit as important as the crucial relationships with other statutory partners - especially our local hospital, GPs, health and police and fire colleagues.
Our Sutton Plan - created, developed and strengthened by all of us together - is a mature document owned by all our statutory and voluntary partners. It has driven our approach to the “wicked” issues in our community. Relationships forged on that basis were already strong and from the first mention of "shielding" and "food hubs", everyone owned the challenge. There were some tough conversations - especially in those early uncertain days, when no one knew the scale of the problem or had yet weighed the expectations and the obstacles. We had to trust each other in the midst of uncertainty and share our fears, summed up as "can we find and provide real help to those in most urgent need?" To achieve this, we were able to work outside and beyond the constraints of formal contracts and funding agreements with a shared goal and a huge amount of trust - knowing that the governance would work.
Once up and running with our food hub, the Council could redeploy significant numbers of staff for one big delivery a week; but we also had many volunteers to help and the voluntary sector leading the supplementary food parcels and the practical and emotional support - a model that has evolved into the voluntary sector leading on food and practical help going forward. It was and remains a real partnership which has grown even stronger as a result.
The partnership is reinforced by our voluntary sector partners having equal status in our "Sutton Health and Care Partnership" in normal times; and being included in our Borough Resilience Forum meetings in these critical times. The other partners (police, military, emergency service, NHS) recognise how important this is. And with joint working come established relationships of trust and the mechanisms to deal with disagreements and misunderstandings when they occur.
Partners appreciate the relationship and the trust - "you have recognised that we have the knowledge and skills to be part of the joint effort to support the most vulnerable" wrote the Chair of Age UK Sutton in May, at a crucial moment in both the pandemic and the partnership activity. The Council appreciates it too and while we might wish to, we cannot exactly quantify the additional quality of life benefits to residents from this way of working, nor the money, resources and time that we are saving. But we know it is the right way forward.
So to take a positive lesson out of the difficulties and anxieties of the past months - and those to come - I reflect that investing time, energy and leadership in building relationships of trust and mutual respect with all partners has not only been the right thing to do but has left my organisation and my community stronger, more resilient in the face of challenge and better prepared for whatever the autumn brings. It gives us hope that together we can face the future challenges and build even stronger partnerships for the future.
Leader of Sutton Council
Cllr Ruth Dombey