This article is part of a week of reflection on the past year and what it has meant for individuals, communities and local government. Unlocked: local stories from a global pandemic.
Like many councils across the country, the causes and consequence of poverty and deprivation were ripping through Brent long before Covid-19 struck. But as we’ve seen so clearly and tragically, in patterns repeated the world over, those already struggling pre-pandemic have been forced to bear the greatest pressures imposed by the sudden and sustained onset of a massive public health and economic crisis.
There are of course any number of sobering lessons for us in local government to take from what is still very much an evolving experience.
Our local health structures, for example, are fragmented and too many people still aren’t able to access them. Questions remain about how we rebuild an effective, compassionate local health infrastructure that sees fewer rough sleepers excluded and fewer people experiencing mental illness whose needs are at once too serious and not serious enough to access treatment.
My Cabinet colleague and LGIU’s very own Vice Chair, Neil Nerva, is leading efforts to better understand how health inequalities are limiting people’s chances and galvanising local health champions, community leaders and organisations as public health allies. The answers to reducing health inequalities are not always structural.
We also need to accept that our temporary Resident Support Fund, which has provided grants and facilitated loans of almost £6m, has barely touched the sides. In attempting to put it on a sustainable footing, we will focus on the most pervasive issues including: digital exclusion, an urgent need for rapid retraining, and the rapidly downward spiral that is crippling rent or mortgage arrears.
Then there’s the fragility of our local economy, which has also been laid bare. Brent is a relatively low-wage economy, with lots of people working in retail and leisure. During 2020, Brent saw the third largest increase in numbers of working age population claiming an unemployment-related benefit: up from 7 per cent to 10.6 per cent in December 2020. 32,500 residents are furloughed (January 2021), which is the ninth highest in England. The jobs they are likely to go back to are insecure, if they exist at all: more businesses are coming to us for help than the government is willing to fund and lots, sadly, won’t survive.
Living in Brent is incredibly expensive and there’s more we need to do to stimulate an inclusive economy in which everyone prospers. Council’s aren’t the only solution but we are in a unique position to help. Community and individual resilience must be the priority: not inadequate handouts and temporary fixes but dignified and co-produced support that recognises that experiencing poverty, poor health or long-term disability is, for the most part, an accident of circumstance.
I’m struck by how powerful President Biden’s actions seem in this context: give people the means to decide for themselves and the majority will make good choices that benefit not just themselves but also those around them – in that sense, those $1.9tr could be as much a civic stimulus as they will undoubtedly be economic.
Given the same opportunity, with the right resources from a government that at last acknowledges our collective credentials, local government here in the UK will show that it is without question, ready, willing, and able to be the reliable agent of positive change that local communities and economies so desperately need.
Councillor Eleanor Southwood is Cabinet Member for Housing and Welfare Reform at Brent Council