It is clear now that the COVID crisis will be with us for a long time. The new normal is really the perilous present, a long-lasting crisis in which disaster is never far away. The latest episode is of course the more or less full (minus schools) England lockdown until 2 December. While the best-case scenario may have been COVID then recession, the reality will be COVID and a recession. And of course, we have the Brexit deal to come too – the oven-ready deal is turning out to be rather half-baked. Navigating all this uncertainty is proving challenging for our government and pretty overwhelming for all of us.
Rebuilding will be tough. Helping people, places and the planet survive and thrive will be a massive effort. But reacting and rebuilding must happen together. And one thing we can be sure of: the sometimes maligned ‘do-gooders’ who make up civil society will pay a key role in it.
Charities, social enterprises, community organisations and all their funders are crucial to getting us through this crisis and creating a better, greener and fairer world on the other side.
Despite everything, charities are fighting so hard to keep going; to keep getting food on people’s tables, sharing company with the lonely, and delivering vital health supplies to vulnerable people shielding from the virus. Charities are embracing new ways of working, of delivering services and of collaborating that are very new and difficult for them.
That’s why civil society needs to be listened to, given a seat at the table both in Whitehall and in town halls. And why their financial needs should be taken seriously by the Treasury.
But this enthusiasm for the community sector can too easily be used to try and put it up as an alternative to the state. We have heard a lot about this as the government tried for several weeks to avoid U-turning on their free school meals policy under the heat of Marcus Rashford’s campaign. The answer that government loyalists, looking for a decent defence line, grasped at is to say we must support communities rather than bringing in a universalist right to free meals for poorer kids in the school holidays.
I have no problem with arguing that we need policy makers at national and local level who understand the centrality of charities and the social sector to a strong society and a strong economy, and for institutions to ensure voices are heard. It’s something that is severely lacking as I set out in a recent speech at NPC Ignites. But let’s not get carried away. Has nobody noticed it’s certain politicians who argue for communities as a sort of ‘replacement’ for the state, and rarely the charities?
Equally let’s not deceive ourselves that the spontaneous and welcome growth of mutual aid and volunteering is a permanent substitute to the infrastructure provided by more established and formalised charities.
What we need is everyone working together, especially at local level. We have seen some signs of this through the pandemic. Our current ‘place’ work includes looking at how Coventry and Sutton councils are trying to make good interaction happen. And we’ve heard at our Place Network meetings how in many areas there has been good collaboration between charities, local government and health.
But there are dangers. While collaboration is happening more during the COVID crisis, it tends to be in the same places as before. That’s partly because it takes time to build the relationships and social infrastructure that enable it. With all the barriers raised by COVID we will need specific, targeted programmes and funding to help such infrastructure spring up where too little exists already. The levelling up agenda won’t work without this.
And none of this works without properly funded local government that will work arm in arm with charities – COVID has made this even clearer. Community groups and charities cannot do everything. Not only does their funding model not allow it, but we have a very uneven spread of charities across the country. Our research shows there are more charities per head in richer places and fewer in poorer places, which matters a lot when we think about how the sector can address inequalities and indeed COVID. The traditional social sector hostility to local government (and vice versa) does nobody any good.
Community and charity activity is helpful, and during COVID, absolutely essential, but we also need the central and local state to act if we are to take the comprehensive actions we need to tackle so many of the issues that we face.
Dan Corry is chief executive of NPC – a think tank and consultancy on third sector issues. He is a former Treasury and Downing Street economic adviser