It has already become a cliché that the world will be changed forever by coronavirus. That of course does not mean it is not true! The FT has pondered on whether in an era of contact tracing we will be more accepting of ‘totalitarian’ telephone surveillance. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, also asks if it is the end of nationalist isolation. The self-styled futurist, Gerd Leonherd, posits 12 potential changes ushered in by current circumstances beyond our control (often the midwife to long-lasting change), including the advent of scientific hyper collaboration, the acceleration of ‘the end of oil’ and the wide ranging implications for transport now that that ‘remote everything’ is the new norm.
There are three key reasons why CV-19 is also creating the subterranean shift in public opinion and institutional reality that makes Devo 3.0 more likely. By the way, Devo 3.0 is my shorthand for the next chapter of better, wider and deeper, devolution in England; the subject of DevoConnect’s recent audit of decision makers and influencers for the UK2070 Commission; and what has been promised by Boris Johnson in the Devolution White Paper (due to be published this summer but now more likely when some semblance of normal Parliamentary politics returns, hopefully in the autumn). These three reasons will mean there will be no room for bluster or further equivocation. It must propose radical and long-lasting reform.
Reason 1 - Defeating a common (invisible) enemy requires the greatest collective cross nation effort ever seen. Boris Johnson will not win this war on his own. Who and what is essential and non-essential is being re-defined. Local government is absolutely proving itself to be part of the former. Despite being the last bastion of the austerity imposed after the last economic crisis, local government and combined authorities have stepped up to the plate to deliver in the country’s long hours of need. Further cuts for councils are in ‘the dustbin of history’ along with the view that experts have had their day. Once properly funded, local government will be emboldened and empowered: inevitably more policy levers will follow.
Reason 2 - Defeating CV19 clearly requires a place-based approach. It will become quite clear that London should have been ‘locked down’ earlier, arguably before the country as a whole. By taking an ‘average across UK approach’ vital days were lost. It was absolutely right that the Mayor of London was invited to Cobra meetings and it was clear that he was making an important – correct – contribution calling for earlier, more strenuous action. I don’t understand why Andy Burnham, a former Secretary of State for Health and who has established the commendable GM Covid 19 Taskforce, has not been invited but that may well, certainly should, change as the CV19 wave peaks in the north. It is also entirely possible, probably desirable, that a place-based approach to the lifting of social distancing is adopted when the time comes.
In many areas local health and care partnerships are already taking place-based decisions in the light of local circumstances arranging services and procuring vital equipment. As Professor John Ashton, former NW Public Health Director has indicated, CV19 will however only be beaten ultimately by the public acting at the neighbourhood and community level. The NHS will at times not cope but with social distancing and the heartening, vast, numbers volunteering to assist the NHS and local councils the very worst may be averted. In the long term Health devolution – local health and social care working together, and with accountable local, political leadership - looks here for good.
Reason 3 – After we have defeated coronavirus - thanks to the immunologists, the health and social care workers and the hundreds of thousands of volunteers as well as all those other essential workers - the new mantra will be the one that has been around before: think global act local. Society has been turned upside down and ‘business as usual’ has passed its sell by date. The watchwords of the future are community and resilience, digital and science, local and global.
Rebuilding the next economy has got to be hard wired into the need to shorten supply chains, re-and up-skill our local populations, focus on local consumption and production and putting the community first. In other words, we will be looking to create a more decentralised, resilient and sustainable economy - one that will also have an opportunity to better align with the transition to net zero. As the world stands still, suddenly ambitions to reach carbon neutrality by 2030 not 2050 seem a realistic possibility: arguably a glimmer of a silver lining in these current very bleak days.
Trying to remain positive, as we must all try to do, it is worth reflecting on the words of another futurist Matthias Horx: ‘At the moment I am often asked when corona “will be over” and when everything will return to normal. My answer is: never. There are historical moments when the future changes direction. We call them bifurcations. Or deep crises. These times are now. The world as we know it is dissolving. But behind it comes a new world, the formation of which we can at least imagine.’ For now, it is survival but to be sure change will follow: better and more devolution is one future we can not only imagine but make real.
Steve Barwick is director of DevoConnect