England & Wales, Global Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

Redrawing our future after COVID

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It will be many years until the full reckoning of the pandemic is in, but with the UK posting the highest death rate in Europe and (currently) the second highest in the world, it seems inevitable that there will be an enquiry of some sort and for many the post mortem has already begun.

As I have argued previously in this column, while it may not yet be possible to do a full accounting of our response to COVID-19, it’s not too early to take stock of what we have learnt so far.

At the top of this list are important questions about the location of power and decision making, lessons about what should be determined at international, national and local levels. This is one of the fundamental pillars of the Post-COVID Councils framework that we are developing at LGIU. The Covid-19 pandemic shows that we need collaboration at international level and strategic national leadership. But it also demonstrates a vital role for local government and for community action.

We’ve seen throughout this crisis some striking successes from local government. Councils quickly put in place food distribution networks, they got homeless people off the streets and into alternative accommodation, they co-ordinated mutual aid groups and they developed new offers such as befriending services or procuring PPE for care homes. At the same time as shifting to digital, largely home based, working.

In many ways, sadly, the last 10 years have, if not prepared local government for this moment, at least habituated it to the sort of action required. Councils are used to working quickly, on a shoe string, in conditions of uncertainty.

Significantly, it has often been central government’s reluctance to fully involve local government that has led to less successful outcomes. Government was slow to involve public health directors despite contact tracing being very familiar to councils in tackling infections such as tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases; there were significant failings in central government’s ‘clipper’ programme for supplying PPE to care homes

So the lesson seems to be that there is a story to tell about government success in the pandemic, but it’s not central government it’s local.

That matters because in the next phases of the pandemic the need for re-localisation will become more urgent for at least three reasons.

First, because we will need more local responses. The government has an economic and political imperative to bring the country as a whole out of lockdown, but we know that the R rate still varies significantly across the country. If there are further outbreaks they are likely to be met with more localised restrictions (perhaps this is what we should have been doing all along?). These will only work if they are decided upon and administered locally, but councils are warning that they lack the powers to implement such “mini-lockdowns”.

Second, because as we begin the recovery phase of this process, “building back better” as many now term it, we will find that it is about values as much as technical questions. What sort of places do we want to live in, how do we wish to relate to each other, what sort of value do we want to privilege?

There’s no reason to think that we should, or even that we can, have national answers to those questions, things will feel different in Blackpool, Basildon and Brighton, people will have different needs and different priorities and we will need a nuanced and granular political process that can accommodate that.

Finally, there’s a question of resilience. As we emerge from any emergency the risk is that we learn the wrong lessons. Too often we end up preparing for the last crisis: we prepared for another financial crash like 2008, we prepared for an influenza epidemic.

But we can’t know what the next crisis will be, we only know that there must be one. So, what we need is resilience. And what we have learnt from coronavirus is that we need flexibility, adaptability and civic solidarity.

They will be what will help us overcome whatever challenges we face in the future, but they can’t be developed by bureaucratically and geographically remote central government because they are about relationships not structures; relationships that can only be built locally.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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