Communities have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic – but they have also shown resilience, providing essential local networks of mutual support and, perhaps even more importantly, giving people hope during a period of hardship.
If there is one lesson to learn from this, it is that communities should be at the heart of the recovery phase and any plan to ‘build back better’ should aim to bring politics closer to people. There are many virtuous examples of ‘community action’ across the country that provide inspiration to develop this idea. The People’s Powerhouse is one such case.
This is a movement created in response to the lack of diverse views in the Northern Powerhouse plans. It has been a champion of inclusion and diversity in the debate about the future of the North. Led by volunteers, the movement has been collecting experiences from all sectors of the society, from young people to ‘left behind’ communities, reaching out to groups that feel less represented in the political debate or struggle to find a space where their voice can be heard.
Their fourth annual conference #ThisIsTheNorth, held last week, is testament to the value of their work. Over two days, more than 600 people came together with the aim of understanding the issues that local communities are facing and find new solutions that work for all. This is no small achievement: in the midst of a second lockdown, as we often feel more isolated, the convention has given people a ‘safe space’ to share in their views, feelings, hopes and fears.
Some metro-mayors from the North took also part in the event. What was quite remarkable in their contributions was that they showed a genuine willingness to ‘sit and listen’, rather than preach and dictate. They also showed a deep commitment to the wellbeing of the communities they serve, demonstrating a clear determination to make real devolution happen.
The mayors’ readiness to work with the People’s Powerhouse and communities across the North is an important reminder that politics does not have to be distant or top-down, but it can speak to and connect with people in their day-to-day lives. Mayors in the North seem to have grasped the importance of this simple yet essential message. Once again, it appears central government would have much to learn from local communities and leaders.
Dr Arianna Giovannini is deputy director of the Local Governance Research Centre (LGRC) and associate professor/reader in local politics and public policy at De Montfort University