This always feels like the beginning of the year. Schools are back, at least for now, and we even have a version of party conferences (though you have to supply your own warm white wine at home).
But as we look ahead to the autumn it’s hard to escape a sense of foreboding and a near paralysing level of uncertainty. There’s a sense of multiple overlapping crises. We’re in the shadow now of a second wave, and while we know much better what to expect, we also know that dealing with this in winter will throw up new challenges. And it remains an open question whether we can once again muster the levels of public resolve and solidarity that we saw in the spring. And Brexit will no doubt cast a shadow.
Local government has its own specific uncertainties to contend with.
Government has consistently failed to establish a clear strategic vision of the role councils should play in tackling the pandemic: public health teams’ involvement in track and trace, local leadership on decisions about local lockdowns, councils’ role in enforcement, in all these areas strategies have veered in and out of focus. Guidance has been issued suddenly, belatedly or not at all. And no-one knows what funding, if any, is attached to these ideas. Some, like COVID marshals, seem to disappear almost as soon as they are coined. ‘Confusing’ one council leader told me, ‘vague’ said a chief executive. Others were far less polite.
Beyond the pandemic there are massive uncertainties. What is the future of social care? Where will it sit and how will it be funded? How will local government itself be funded come to that? Business rate retention? A new funding formula? Presumably there will be another short-term settlement announced in the autumn. And then there’s devolution and/or reorganisation. One minute we’re told all two-tier local government will be swept away, the next minute the minister responsible is gone and it’s being walked back.
We simply don’t know (though the fact that no one in local government knows says a great deal about the process). Does anyone have any sense that there’s a sustained strategic focus on this from government? That inattention would be excusable, perhaps, in the heat of a pandemic but it’s been dragging on for years. And there’s a direct link between this lack of vision for local government and the inability to engage with it in response to COVID.
Unless you start from a firm strategic footing you can’t hope to adapt effectively in a crisis.
So, we’re trying to deal with an unprecedented emergency, but we’re doing so in a strategic vacuum. It would be easy to despair; but there are ways local government can act. ‘I cannot govern events,’ wrote Montaigne, ‘but I can govern myself and apply myself to them’.
Thus far, local government has filled in the cracks in national policy, now it needs to occupy those spaces permanently. It needs to focus on the leadership it can provide in places, accepting that it will get neither the permission nor the support it might like from the centre. That also means tuning out the noise of transient policy and refusing to get distracted by a fight about structures.
Most of all it needs to centre on places and communities. That’s where the social energy and civic responsibility we need to sustain the next stage of our fight against the virus will be found. And only local government can manage the alignment of social, environmental and economic recovery that we need, because that requires a really granular linking of policies that will be different in different parts of the country.
Central government needs to stand back and allow local government to take the lead. We’re testing to destruction the limits of a national response to the pandemic – the next phase must be localised or we really are in for a very grim autumn indeed.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit