Insights from Aberdeen: using the pandemic response to address systemic issues and build resilience

Two years after the imposition of lockdowns, city leaders are facing the challenge of implementing pandemic recovery strategies that confront the underlying structural issues the experience of CoVid magnified.  In advance of IPPO Cities’ special Cities Policy Roundtable on systemic issues and building resilience on 24th March 2022, Angela Scott, Chief Executive of Aberdeen City Council, shares her insights.

Angela Scott

Aberdeen is a city familiar with economic shocks. In the recent past, these have been felt through movements in the global oil price – important for a city whose economy has been dependent on oil and gas. This time the shock came in the form of a global pandemic, but with a preceding downward movement in the oil price.

The vulnerability of Aberdeen’s economy

The fortunes of the city’s retail, hospitality and cultural sectors have been tied to the oil price. These sectors entered the pandemic with an underlying fragility because of the 2017 price drop. This inter-dependency is well understood in the city, and with public and private partners we have been pursuing a strategy of economic diversification to create economic resilience.  We experienced a doubling of the number of people in the city claiming universal credit during the pandemic. I fear this would have been worse had we not been pursuing the strategy we have.

The trade-off between economic harm and environmental gain

Like all urban environments pre-pandemic, we were trying to strike the balance between maintaining an economically vibrant city and city centre whilst trying to manage the city’s levels of carbon emissions. Our regional economic transport strategy had made progress in active travel and public transport. However, the environmental gain from the seismic shift to home working and public health measures across retail, hospitality and culture demonstrated the extent of change required if we are to achieve the 2045 net zero targets. During the pandemic, we have agreed a net zero route map for the city emboldened by what we have witnessed during the pandemic.

Financial vulnerability and the impact on families

The furlough scheme and the various welfare support schemes both played a significant part in financial security.  We immediately established a Crisis Support Line to provide welfare advice and emotional support, trying to focus on those most in need. The fragility of some families was evident pre-pandemic – the pandemic revealed more vulnerability and fragility. In response, we established three Family Wellbeing Hubs in targeted areas of the city to support children and families, each with a strong focus on mental health and wellbeing.  This has developed into a new Family Support Model that relies on a multi-agency approach to supporting families. This will enable us to build the resilience within families and to take an earlier approach to intervention.

The pandemic has helped us to see the strengths within our health and social partnership and we’re building on that by developing a community-based ‘whole system’ approach that triages people to health and community-based support first rather than into the emergency acute system. If we’re successful, then we will ensure the future resilience of the acute hospital system against future health pandemics.

Supporting resilience in our business community

It was striking how the response to the crisis faced by the business community in Aberdeen also required a ‘whole system’ response across the Council’s business-facing services – licensing, trading standards, non-domestic rates as well as economic development support.  We convened a Business Resilience Group that essentially operated for the first 12 months of lockdown as a call-off group to raise issues of key employers to government and to communicate on the various responses for business.  This group helped shape the Council’s ‘in year’ response in the form of a 2020 Socio-Economic Action Plan.  Building resilience going forward we have embedded several of the 2020 actions into our Local Outcomes Improvement Plan and Community Planning Aberdeen.

Our vulnerable supply chain

The pandemic revealed the council’s dependency on an international supply chain, along with others, as well as some of the limitations in trying to re-direct this demand via a national supply chain. The degree of international versus national supply chains revealed the carbon footprint of us all and the challenge we face in reducing this footprint whilst ensuring a reliable supply chain here in this country.  As the pandemic developed, and with it the uncertainty of lockdown, we also had to make other areas more resilient.  To deliver our capital programme for example, we had to be flexible with contracts, advance order materials and maintain excellent communication with contractors around managing cashflow. All important aspects for us to retain.

Public sector workforce vulnerability

The scale of collaboration needed with partners and local communities was vital.  I was struck by the increased level of volunteering and even closer working with the Aberdeen Council for Voluntary Organisations as people supported their communities, neighbours, or family members in responding to the effects of the pandemic.  And this level of engagement and participation is something we must continue to benefit from as we continue to face pressures within our workforce.

Digital adoption was accelerated during Covid. Within the council, our ‘chat bot’ was up and running pre-Covid and served us well during the pandemic.  We were very fortunate that we had rolled out Microsoft Teams before the pandemic and were rolling out digital engagement with our customers.  But the pandemic really embedded that change as we saw an increase in online library visits, museums and galleries and community learning class delivery, and online applications for various grants available.

We have all learnt a huge amount from the pandemic. Surely, its legacy must be that we are no longer timid in responding to Aberdeen’s issues as a place with clearly defined needs, and in tackling the organisational systemic issues we face.

Angela Scott is among the speakers at the IPPO Cities Policy Roundtable on  24th March 2022, from 12:30 pm to 1:30 pm GMT.  This discussion will feature city leaders from across the UK, and forms part of IPPO’s all-day event marking the second anniversary of the imposition of pandemic lockdowns. Sign up for the Cities roundtable here, and for the all-day Pandemic Two Years On event here.