Councils are the counterbalance

By Claire Fox | 16 November 2020
  • Claire Fox

For a brief moment just before we were all locked-down, metro mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, was heralded as a hero among local authorities for holding out against the Government’s plan to force his region into tier three. Great to see a challenge to national Government. However, the problem was that Mayor Burnham seemed to imagine that by simply demanding more money, he was defending the North.

Yet, along with most of his peers in local government, Mayor Burnham has been vociferous in demanding a full national lockdown, as though an equal dose of misery for everyone in the country was OK – as long as there was cash on the table.

What local government leaders seem to forget is that the consequences of shutting down society for long periods does far more damage than killing small businesses and hospitality outlets. What is lost is community, dignity, freedom and civil society. Those lobbying for more lockdown measures seem to imagine that money offsets human, social deprivations.

Note how any opposition to lockdown was seemingly quelled by an extension of furlough. While I was relieved the scheme was extended for individuals, most of us realise it merely postpones job losses. However, as we know from the bleakness of long-term unemployment, jobs are more than wages packets. Dependence on the state, even if it did pay more than the amounts now doled out in benefits, cannot compensate for the way that joblessness demoralises and saps confidence.

Don’t get me wrong – money, or the lack of it, matters. Lockdown-related recessionary trends are having a devastating impact on incomes. So, I was pleased when Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford used his celebrity clout to force the Government to do two U-turns on free school meals during the holidays.

But opposition politicians’ OTT talk of Tories wilfully starving children jarred while those same Government critics lobbied for lockdown policies that impoverish families. The same lockdowners that demanded schools should be closed in the name of safety.

Is starving children of access to knowledge, socialisation and quality teaching acceptable? There is more to helping the next generation prosper than food vouchers. Full bellies are important, but feeding young people’s minds – the core role of schools – is at least of equal value.

The reduction of what constitutes the good life to a fistful of dollars has a particular personal relevance.

In the middle of the first lockdown, my maisonette was part of a council block that suffered what is reputed to be the largest fire in Haringey’s peacetime history. Thankfully no one was hurt, but tragically 40 people were evacuated and rehoused after extensive water damage. We were originally assured this would be a short-term displacement. Now blameless residents have discovered they won’t be allowed home until at least January 2022.

What is extraordinary is that the council seems oblivious to the heartbreak this has caused. When officials can’t tell the difference between any old roof over your head versus your own home, you can tell a certain type of utilitarian technocrat has come to dominate municipal thinking.

I am not a Conservative Party supporter but forgive me for taking Labour accusations about heartless Tories with a pinch of salt.

Indeed, priorities seem to have become skewed by COVID-related policy-making on all sides of politics. This should mean councils have an even more crucial role as a democratic counterbalance, to push back against central diktats when they threaten local areas. They will not be able to do this if they only see Westminster as a cash cow, and don’t understand that citizens need more than money to get through the COVID challenge.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas


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