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.
Local government has been a key partner of both the NHS and central government in tackling the pandemic, reflects Alan Waters, Leader of Norwich City Council. He looks back on a tumultuous year and considers the direction that post-Covid recovery might take.
“You are on mute” is one of the takeaway phrases from the last year, as the Covid virus has weaved through our lives and changed how we have communicated and interacted with other people. Those interactions, what is permissible and what is not, were framed by shifting sands of regulation and guidance. These were not always easy to explain as I found, doing regular video clips for our council website.
Collectively and individually it’s been an emotional roller coaster. “The war will be over by Christmas” mentality, expressed most fatally by the “Eat out to Help out” offer last summer, turned out to be the engine room of the second wave of Covid in the autumn.
Lessons, as they say, have been learnt but at a high cost both in the numbers contracting Covid and those that have lost their lives. For the moment, most people are looking forward, not back. The successful vaccine roll out by the NHS and an indicative ‘road map’, informed more cautiously, by scientific evidence, is giving people more optimism that the worst is now over.
Looking at the events of the last year as the council leader of Norwich, a medium sized city in the East of England, local government emerged as the key partner of both the NHS and central government in tackling the pandemic. I was one, among many council leaders who wrote to the Prime Minister, last year to make that point. When we were told by Robert Jenrick the Secretary of State at MHCLG to spend “whatever it takes”, that was an acknowledgement of our importance at a time of national emergency. We had the expectation that we would be fully recompensed for the costs of Covid.
At the start of the pandemic the council mobilised to redesign its front-line services and priorities to meet the needs of a city in quarantine, in particular its most vulnerable residents. The council was an effective conduit for a wide range of grants to businesses and individual residents. Councillors of all political groups played active roles in their wards to support constituents alongside voluntary groups and council staff to help people get through the pandemic. The city’s network of parks and green spaces were kept open for residents. This wrap around support continues, for a city, whose residents have taken seriously the need to help contain the spread of the virus.
While all this was going on, there were bigger political agendas in play. A sense of the direction the government would have taken in a number of policy areas, if there hadn’t been a pandemic. Devolution briefly reared its head with the ambition of what looked like a major restructuring of councils and the cherry on top of elected mayors. Hardly ideal timing given a raging pandemic. It faded away quickly – but I think it will be back.
In tackling the pandemic, it became clear early on, the government’s preference for central control and private companies (some benefiting from ‘VIP’ procurement routes), involving eye watering amounts of public money.
By contrast, despite warm praise, parsimony was the watch word for local government. Councils were not reimbursed for the costs of Covid to the extent that many councils had to find mid-year budget reductions to stabilise their financial position. Norwich had to find £7m. The fatal flaw in a funding model that replaced Revenue Support Grant with dependence on significant generation of local income was revealed by the pandemic. No subsequent announcements by the chancellor give any comfort to addressing sustainable funding for the councils.
We started thinking, early last year about a recovery plan for the city, to be led through utilising the strong City Vision 2040 partnership. Covid has accelerated economic trends like the restructuring of retail (particularly important in a regional shopping centre like Norwich); widening inequality; the changing nature of work.
The recovery plan, has a citywide span, and includes:
- Securing the council’s finances;
- reimagining local council services;
- supporting the most vulnerable;
- business and the local economy;
- housing and regeneration;
- arts, culture and heritage;
- climate change and the green economy;
- harnessing social capital.
The last year has demonstrated the importance of local government as central to tackling the pandemic and to the recovery of local communities: we certainly feel that in Norwich. One year of living through a pandemic has made me reflect on longer-term trends. Besides re-reading Albert Camus, La Peste and finding behaviours that reflect the gamut of emotions all of us have gone through, I read Laura Spinney’s book, Pale Rider about the impact of the Spanish Flu of 1918 and its long shadow into our own century that wrought dramatic changes at every level of society. This pandemic is doing the same.
At the end of the second world war few people wanted to go back to 1939. Too much had changed. Despite the financial costs, a new Labour government, in partnership with local government, built the welfare state, laying the foundation for better health and an unprecedented growth in living standards.
Few people, if opinion polling is to be believed, want to go back to the pre-Covid world. They want something better – a government that takes seriously its responsibilities and invests for the long term in the well-being of all its citizens and works with local government to deliver that ambition. As things stand, the outcome remains in the balance.