In times like these we remember just how connected we all are, and how much we depend on each other. The Covid-19 crisis has shown that, despite our differences, most of us want others to be safe and are happy to do our bit. It has also shown how much we value the institutions and professionals who are working so hard to protect us.

At Unchecked, we think our public bodies do amazing work keeping us safe in every area of life – looking out for our health, for our rights at work, for the safety of our families and for our natural environment. This web of public protectors, often unseen, are our country’s immune system.

We’re speaking to public protectors about the vital work they do, and the changes they’re seeing as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

Photo of Rob Couch, environmental health advisor

Matt Holford is Head of Environmental Services at South Derbyshire District Council. He works in a range of areas, including food hygiene and infectious disease control, environmental crime, environmental protection and private sector housing standards.

“Virtually all of the services we provide in environmental health are at their heart based on persuading people to behave well – to their clients, to their neighbours and to their environment. We’re usually the first agency to have the chance to make an intervention when things start going wrong – be it through a complaint about anti-social behaviour, poor trading practices, fly tipping or a derelict house.

“Our officers’ knowledge of local culture and people, along with well-practiced soft skills, mean that 99% of the time we can we can nip a lot of these problems in the bud without needing to resort to the law. If we weren’t there, then the problem wouldn’t get solved, more people would behave inappropriately and fractures would start appearing.

“An average day usually involves bouncing between different ways to help my frontline staff deal with the multitude of problems they find. Generally we’re in the business of problem solving on a shoestring, so often it’s about finding imaginative ways of getting things done.

“We’re one of the parts of government who people are most likely to have contact with, so if we can present ourselves as accessible and trustworthy then it builds trust in all parts of the state and hopefully leaves people with the impression that they get value for money from their public services.”

“At the absolute front of the services we provide is a ‘can do’ attitude.”

South Derbyshire is an area undergoing rapid economic growth, and Matt sees enforcing regulations as a way to help good businesses thrive while having a positive impact on the local community and the local area.

“At the absolute front of the services we provide is a ‘can do’ attitude. So if a developer has a possible noise problem associated with a planning application, we don’t object to the application, we tell them how to solve it.”

“On one occasion we were contacted by a small recycling business who had to produce an EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) to expand an existing plastic recycling facility nowhere near any local housing. The operator had been quoted £15,000 to produce the technical reports to support his application. It took us half a day to write up a full specification of the noise, dust and odour standards which we believed he needed to meet based on local environmental conditions and industry good practice. Based on this the application was approved and he’s now happily trading providing more local jobs without any adverse impact.”
The support Matt’s team gives to help businesses comply with the rules has become even more important in light of the rapid changes brought about by Covid-19.

“When the lockdown kicked in, many businesses – particularly food businesses – wanted to make a quick transition from their existing premises-based trading model to a take-away style operation in order to keep trading. This sounds like a fairly simple transition, but the changes in food handling and processing creates unforeseen risks in the safety of the products being sold, especially given the speed with which businesses were looking to make changes.”

“In such dynamic circumstances, business operators really don’t want to be getting bogged down in the detail of food law compliance. Our food hygiene officers have been on hand, not just to give businesses advice on the new Covid Health Protection Regulations, but more generally on implementing safe food practices to enable the new business practices to operate with confidence.”

“Public protection services such as mine will help fuel the recovery, not hinder it.”

Covid-19 has also seen other big changes in a number of areas of Matt’s team’s work.

“We’ve been swamped with requests from hospital discharge teams and adult social services to help find solutions to enable patients get discharged from hospital into safe homes in order to free up hospital beds. Often these are relatively vulnerable or elderly patients whose properties are unsafe due to inadequate heating, electrical faults, fire risks or unsanitary conditions. Unless the properties can be brought up to a basic standard of safety then the patient can’t be discharged.

“We’ve been able to use powers available to us under housing and public health law to cut through all of the administrative, get work done quickly and get patients out of hospital back home where they belong, often at a cost a just tens of pounds.”

One of the concerns for Matt is that in the potentially tough economic times ahead, regulation will be seen as a barrier to economic recovery.

“In the short term I think that the very genuine expressions of gratitude for our health workers, bin men and other public workers will continue. My big fear is what happens once collective memories fade and the reality of finding ways to recover from the huge economic shock moves to the top of the political agenda. I fully expect the dogma that been pushed for quite a few years now that regulation is by definition bad for economic growth could come back with a vengeance.”

“I’ve got dozens of examples of cases where I can evidence that well directed regulation has fantastic economic and social benefits. Public protection services such as mine will help fuel the recovery, not hinder it.”

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