England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development

Post-Covid Councils: building a sustainable future

A good life cannot be simply a return to business as usual. Kim Fellows, LGIU’s commissioning editor in Scotland, introduces pillar two of our Post-Covid Councils framework, looking at how we build a sustainable future for all.

In my view, the requirement that everyone can have a good life – safety, food, sanitation, education, a place to live – is self-evident and critically important. However, even in rich countries, including the UK, that good life was not possible for everyone even before Covid-19 hit the UK.

Inequality of impacts, including death rates, has become a key feature of this pandemic. From the risk of infection to the risk of dying, from the ability to deal with the shock to the risks in employment and the likelihood of unemployment, your socio-economic position determines how deep the scars from this crisis will be for you and your family. As one recent LGIU briefing put it: we are all in the same storm, but we aren’t all in the same boat.

The gap between the rich and the poor seems to grow with every passing month; the pandemic has clearly shown that poverty is still a reality for millions across the country with thousands of families unable to afford to put food on the table. I grew up in the West Midlands and I am horrified that they are suffering from one of the worst Covid-related death rates in the UK; my hometown has huge levels of material and health inequality. Covid-19 has been bringing into sharp relief all the cracks that we have papered over for decades.

When I started to commission briefings and explain our new programme of work, Sustainable Futures, my first thoughts were to focus on the work of female leaders during this pandemic that has, on the whole, been widely praised. But I was also struck by what I read about the need for green leadership skills for recovery, followed by a large number of green recovery plans. These plans go beyond mainstream politics and ways in which these policies and ideas are operationalised will be key in shaping the short, medium and long term future of the planet. With this in mind, LGIU Sustainable Futures will build on aspects of these plans to highlight the practical and pressing opportunities open to local government and partners in building a more sustainable and fair future for all. You can read here about one economic model that might be useful.

In the midst of the calls for a new normal, voices have started to say that once normality returns all these good intentions for fewer flights, buying local and fewer car journeys will fade away and no one will care. I find that frightening as I consider the fast approaching climate emergency. To combat this tendency to go back to the old ways I have witnessed the calls for brave leadership, vision and clear decision making. A good leader is a good leader, regardless of gender, and achieving a sustainable future will require everyone to work together with a consistent plan and a clear route to deliver that plan, including funding. The world is full of outstanding leaders working in many different sectors, they are each more important than ever and when committed to work together will make a difference to deliver real and lasting change.

As this new LGIU briefing on Ecological Public Health shows, there is really no way of going back if we are going to tackle climate change. All of our fellow human beings and those of us who care about public services are wishing for a new normal that puts sustainability and equality at the heart of decision-making. I say this as someone who twenty years ago worked in Scottish Government on health inequalities policy. Since then over twenty years of policy interventions have failed to close the gap and post-Covid it seems likely that the gap between the haves and have nots will in fact worsen.

When I worked with public health doctors, Professor Phil Hanlon taught me “it all matters”, that health inequalities are much more than health. Over ten years ago at the time of the financial crash I read The Spirit Level, and became aware of the work of Michael Marmot. We recently took a look at how the messages of the Marmot Review have held up in a briefing and accompanying blog. LGIU have reported extensively about efforts to tackle health inequalities and new LGIU briefings will keep you well informed with current thinking.

I then moved to work in sustainability and became familiar with the idea of ecological public health. The Inner Level was published as a follow up to The Spirit Level and we began as policy makers and society to talk more and more about the need for equal societies. If it is true Covid-19 has further amplified inequality then, as the economist Thomas Piketty says in his book: “if inequality is so unfair why haven’t we fixed it?”

Professor Kate Pickett, of The Spirit Level fame, is now leading a piece of work on the new normal. She says: “In terms of health, happiness and measures of wellbeing, research suggests that rich countries have got to the end of the social benefits of economic growth and rising material standards. Further improvements in the real quality of life now depend more on the quality of social relations in society than on higher levels of consumption. The evidence suggests that by narrowing income differences we can improve the social and psychological well being of the whole population, an exciting prospect when our need for public health resilience, new economic models and environmental restraints on growth are pushing in the same direction.”

That is, I think, a hopeful message and one that will be explored further as part of our Post-Covid councils project – building sustainable futures for all.

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