2021: Tough challenges but hope on horizon says Falkirk Council chief executive

Perhaps Falkirk Council's chief executive Kenneth Lawrie speaks for many when he looks ahead to next year.

"There's no doubt that 2021 isn't going to be easy but I'm pretty sure it's going to be a fair bit better than 2020," he said.Mr Lawrie, along with council leader Cecil Meiklejohn, was looking back on a year that must surely rank as the toughest ever for local authorities, including Falkirk.With its offices closed, schools shut, care homes vulnerable, waste services disrupted and so much more, the council had more than its fair share of challenges.For a while recently, it looked like the new year would start on a brighter note, with the vaccine already being rolled out to frontline NHS and social care staff.But the news that Boxing Day will see us all in Tier 4 made us realise that any celebrations were premature.However, Mr Lawrie says the council is much more prepared than it was in March when the pandemic took everyone by surprise with its speed and severity."Yes, Covid has dominated this year and it has meant suffering, economic uncertainty, loss of employment and poverty."But employees of the council have responded brilliantly to all of this - whether caring for the vulnerable, maintaining critical service provision, getting the schools open again, supporting business or working with communities to provide foods and medicines."He is also full of praise for the "back office" staff who very quickly sorted things so that people could work safely at home."They probably had to deal with a certain amount of flak because people were stressed and challenged by it but I think they did a great job," said Mr Lawrie.And while the pandemic wreaked havoc, it also broke down barriers."Some of the bureaucracy has gone away because people have just been responding and they have been energetic and dynamic and committed and resilient in doing all of that," said Mr Lawrie.That energy and pace of change is something he wants to see continue.

"In something like digital, the council has moved forward three four five years in a period of six months, just because the necessity of the moment demanded that."Mrs Meiklejohn agrees that there has been a great deal to be proud of in Falkirk's response."Something that's made me really, really proud is the strength of our communities and what they delivered, particularly in that first few weeks of lockdown, and the sustained approach they have taken since then.As each community sprang into action, new volunteers came to the fore who did not wait for the council to tell them what to do.They were, however, able to tap into its resources when they were needed."This pandemic has shown that we are very adaptable and that we will just roll our sleeves up and get on with it - and that is a great credit to our communities and to our staff," said Mrs Meiklejohn.Over the next few months, Falkirk Council will play a crucial role in the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine.But that is not the only thing giving a spark of hope.This year, Falkirk Council signed its long-awaited Growth Deal, a ten-year programme of investment supported by UK and Scottish Governments."It's going to be absolutely critical to our recovery programme," said Mrs Meiklejohn."Falkirk as a location is showing great interest for investment and there are opportunities we need to take and develop."Another huge decision that was taken after years of wrangling was the vote to press on with new council HQ and arts centre.It is hoped that the £45 million centre - which will include a theatre, a new library and a cafe as well as key council offices - will be at the centre of a transformation of the town centre.Mrs Meiklejohn said: "Our town centre is pretty much on its knees - as are other town centres - but we now have the opportunity to look to invest and to start to rebuild and repurpose it."That decision has allowed us to take that forward and to start to grow confidence in our town centre and show people that we do care."That's not the only change afoot.In Falkirk, the number of people living in care homes is unusually high - and the district paid a high price for that during the pandemic.The high number of deaths in care homes meant anguish for families - and for the staff who tried to protect residents.Long-term plans to change the way care is delivered have taken on a new urgency.Mrs Meiklejohn said: "They are making great moves towards changing that bed-based model, recognising that people want to remain in their own home and that it is the best place for them as long as possible."Looking ahead, Mr Lawrie also wants to see climate change stay near the top of the agenda.And he knows that whatever happens, huge financial challenges lie ahead.But holding on to the 'new normal we've created', he says, will be crucial as the council works with businesses and communities to rebuild and strengthen the local economy."For all of the difficulties and for all of the suffering, we need to build on all the positive things that have happened," said Mr Lawrie.Mrs Meiklejohn agrees: "Whatever happens, we have very good people on the ground and we'll deal with it and come out the other side."

Falkirk Steeple (Pic: Michael; Gillen)

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Picture Michael Gillen
Picture Michael Gillen. Former Thomas Cook premises which Falkirk Council plan to use to replace municipal buildings.
Kenneth Lawrie, chief executive of Falkirk Council