The local response to Covid should shape the government’s response to future crises
The national response to Covid has been consistently off the mark. New relationships and networks working together at a local level were far better at keeping people safe.
Over the last year, how much have we talked about, heard about, and thought about scale? Scale of the challenge of Covid-19, scale of its economic impact, scale of the cost – in human lives, livelihoods, deteriorating mental health. The scale of crowds on sunny beaches, of groups sitting around in parks. And then the scale of the response – our national volunteer ‘army’, the mutual aid phenomenon - and the faltering attempts to scale-up testing regimes and track-and-trace systems.
It has proven profoundly difficult for us to wrap our heads around the scale of the spread of this virus. It is a challenge on the global scale, where initial small numbers presage an accelerating vastness of infection. National governments, weighing the drastic implications of early intervention, were often too slow to act. In exponential times, one week late is very late.
The national response has been consistently off the mark during this pandemic. Desperate to maintain a grip on events even as they spun out of control, Westminster and Whitehall held close every possible policy lever, every mooted intervention. In a reflection of how concentrated power and influence really is in this country, the local response was consistently neglected.
Local authorities received minimal support and communication. Local public health teams – best placed to understand their area and the needs of the people in it – were side-lined from the effort.
This is striking, because almost everything that went well during this crisis has been at a smaller scale. In a global crisis, the critical behaviours, measures, and responses have all been at a local level. As New Local’s latest report, Shifting the Balance, argues, in many places this experience has been transformational. We have found the correct scale for many aspects of the pandemic response, and a door has been opened to an entirely different way of working for local government and communities.
Council after council told us they hoped their practices would change forever, sustaining this new agility, problem-solving, and collaboration
As part of our research, we spoke to community organisations that had discovered people in need of support who would otherwise never have been on public services’ radar. We heard about how new relationships and networks formed as organisations worked together, playing to their respective strengths to help keep people safe. We saw how public servants were liberated to really engage with people, far beyond the old world of lip-service consultation.
Council after council told us they hoped their practices would change forever, sustaining this new agility, problem-solving, and collaboration. They also recognise that, without a deliberate attempt to embed the new approaches, once the crisis ends, the status quo could easily resume and they might see all their hard-won gains slip away. Responding to this, Shifting the Balance offers practical suggestions to genuinely ‘build back better’.
What we have seen during the pandemic is an unquestionable proof-of-concept for the benefits of greater social trust and autonomy. And this could only ever emerge at the local scale. Policymaking at the centre can never adequately capture the unique conditions of each context and cannot hope to be informed by neighbourhood experience. For the humanisation of the relationship between people and the state, scale matters.
Of course, when something goes well there is an immediate instinct in our highly centralised country to scale it up. To boast of moon-shots, world-beating achievements, national apps, giant hospitals. But our findings are quite clear. The only thing that should be scaled-up is the lesson that, given a little freedom, communities and public services can be highly collaborative, innovative and adaptive.
The result is that lives are saved, dusty practices are abandoned, and people discover a new stake in the wellbeing of their neighbours. Not as the result of an edict from on-high, but because this is what communities do when they are given a chance. We argue that the government must leap on this potential by enacting a Community Power Act to safeguard the rights and autonomy of our local places.
Our task now is to learn the lesson of small-scale solutions in time for the next global crisis – and really shift the balance for good.
Dr Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at New Local.