Councils at a crossroads: Local government in a post-COVID world

By Nazeya Hussain et al | 09 July 2020

The Big Herd of Elephants in the room

For decades local government has been at the forefront of public sector reform and efficiencies. In short, at the sharp end of cuts. This has clearly led to more innovation and perception of better value for council taxpayers but it has also raised the thresholds around who we support and reduced our preventative work considerably.

Whilst we have seen public sector colleagues across health and police continue to be supported and see increases in real terms (and rightly so), local councils have not. It is a fact that cannot be denied that we have seen a reduction of £16 billion of core grant from central Government over the preceding decade and this is now beginning to show.  We have stepped up, year after year, to absorb cuts. Every town hall has been making difficult choices and communicating these to communities. In spite of this, in the face of the pandemic, we have been proactively at the sharp end of making sure our children are safe, our streets are cleaned, our parks are open, our crematoria and burial services are safe, the bins are collected and our older people receive the care they need and deserve.

Local government has made sure the NHS has been ‘shielded day and night’. But this is only half of the story. We have also used our local networks, galvanised armies of volunteers (well before hints of any national scheme), brought and distributed personal protective equipment (PPE) and set up large logistical operations to deliver medicine and food across wide geographies. Millions of our frontline staff tell stories of support to people who simply had no one to turn to. This is at the heart of what local government can do and wants to do. 

Moving forward we hear of every region and council in the country now facing unprecedented levels of costs. We are at a crossroads - do we lead the recovery of our economies by investing in new infrastructure and housing and supporting those who are deeply affected or do we cut back services that have already been cut for decades?

A new relationship must emerge between national, regional and local government. One that is based on trust, a genuine belief that local is best and with local government at the heart, because we have an intimate understanding of our communities, places, people and services. This cannot be created by the centre, it has to be cultivated locally.

Local/central Government - Let’s start a new relationship

For too long, local government has been the poor relation. We have been more than grateful, and delighted, when part of our sector has achieved real devolution, for it only then to emerge that it comes with many conditions and didn't really devolve enough to make the difference for local leaders.

We have seen programmes and pilots come and go into intractable local issues and yet we still face increasing inequality and disparity in every part of the country. A new relationship needs to emerge that does not see relentless rounds of short term initiatives and silo based funding from government departments, that in turn then cultivate a culture of competition across regions and places to one where we bring town halls and government departments together to think deeply about places and communities. A relationship that values community based solutions with partners who know local areas and have the social capital and leadership to make real change. 

Let this be the ‘new normal’ that emerges at a unique time when our communities might be listening to central government for announcements, but are looking to local councils to help them navigate and support them in their new reality. A ‘levelling up’ must happen between local and central Government roles if we are to emerge well out of this devastating and crippling pandemic for our communities and our economy.

Future impacts -  how we operate in this new uncertain space

The four possible waves of the pandemic will see communities and society feel the impact of COVID-19 for at least four to five years. How local government responds and works in this new environment will be critical. As full lockdown continues eases, we will continue to see outbreaks among certain groups and geographic areas which will require further restrictions for a period of time. How we respond and react requires local solutions.

We will also sadly see an increase in people dying or becoming more dependent on the council, because of other diseases and conditions that were not attended to in the current lockdown. We have yet to work through the long term impacts that this will have on the most vulnerable - our 20% poorest communities, those with long term disabilities and mental health issues, our black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities and those who are furthest from the labour market.

The role for local government will be about both prevention and mitigating the long term impacts as well as remaining agile, responding to the immediate and daily challenges our communities face. This will require a new debate with government about the value placed on  prevention rather than intervention. A debate underpinned by three key needs - joined up health and social care, a commitment to skills and a focus on housing. 

New focus, new norm

The integration of health and adult social care has achieved more in the last three  months than it has in the past decade. Normal structures, reports and systems stood down as everyone focused on a single purpose. This saved lives and needs to be sustained and become the new norm. For example, sharing data and intelligence across the council and wider system into a single view of our communities allowed us to supplement and enhance the offer we could provide to a much larger cohort of our communities well beyond the government’s shielding list.

Local government knows its communities and places in a deep, meaningful way. There are literally thousands of stories from people who we have helped who would not have been identified through any national programme of mapping. This needs to be embedded in the way we deliver services into the future. The challenge is how we pivot the sector to work in ways driven by data and intelligence to deliver new more integrated services across communities. Now is the time to not go backwards.

Skills sector reform

For too long the hollowing out of higher education and further education provision has led to a significant gap in supporting those who work in the low wage economy and who will be most affected by the pandemic.

Government must recognise that a well-funded programme of support needs to not only be focused on helping those who are furthest away from the labour market, but also a newer, larger cohort of traditionally low-waged workers who will now be facing unemployment as sectors such as retail, hospitality, logistics and the gig economy retract and reshape in a post-COVID world.  For example, Centre for Cities predicts 57% of jobs in Crawley are at risk due to changes in Gatwick operations. Many of these jobs are low paid in catering, logistics, cleaning, ground staff and other manual roles that have always underpinned the global aviation industry.

We need well-designed programmes including funding for adult retraining in more flexible ways enabling people to re-enter the workforce, with prospects of ongoing skills and training as we rebuild the economic foundation of the economy.   21st century jobs will require core skills of agility, communication and collaboration, something that the current skills agenda is not addressing.  It is imperative that the government builds on its current interventions, working with and supporting regional and local governments to design and deliver sustained programmes, backed by new investment, which are designed to help restructure local economies. 

Housing for all

The housing market is, and will continue to be, divided between those who can afford to buy and those who cannot. After every recession it is the public sector that has restarted the building of affordable homes and we therefore must continue. Many councils and regions have ambitious targets and have in recent years begun to deliver more housing. However this now needs to be accelerated with an increase in both quantity and quality but most importantly, a wider tenure.

Behind every homelessness application is a story of complex needs, compounded by people losing both their place of safety and sense of belonging in their own community. The ‘Everyone In‘ campaign during the pandemic has been the biggest intervention in homelessness ever seen and now we must  meet the challenge of providing affordable and stable housing for these people with the right wrap-around services.  At the core of the ‘In for Good’ work must be well designed  wraparound services to build long term resilience for these vulnerable and complex sets of individuals. This will require both local and national support and resources into the future.

The end of the furlough scheme in its current form will also see an increase in people who are currently in private rented accommodation who lose their jobs and their homes. They will be knocking at the door of local authorities and we have very little room to manoeuvre beyond reversion to nightly paid accommodation for those who meet our very high thresholds for support. These costly short term solutions continue to leave people on the edges of communities and without the support they need. Government must work with us to deliver a sustainable long term solution for this growing cohort of renters.

The shape of a new local economy

New key workers  - Every economy relies on a backbone of carers, cleaners, retail staff, warehouse operative, bus drivers and lower-paid skills. Without these skills we could not have responded to the pandemic. The definition of key workers and how we support them needs to be addressed.

Many of the sectors that underpin these jobs are now at risk and we need to think radically about how we support these industries and those who work in them. We need both a sector response and a community based response that go hand in hand. Commissioning needs to enable providers to support bringing these sectors back into the real economy and crucially, to better support progression for workers in these industries. 

Low Carbon - The opportunity to accelerate our efforts into developing a low carbon economy is now - but this will take time and resources. We will not simply ‘bounce forwards’ from the current energy market drivers, costs of renewables, individual behaviours and the lack of investment in sustainable and safe transport right across the country.

Councils have a significant role in how this is done locally with our planning and place shaping powers, thinking about how we ‘revive’ local town centres, how we enhance our cycling and walking infrastructure, and how and where our own workforce will now work. It is a key moment for local leaders to really grasp the nettle and reshape local spaces and places.

Localisation of supply chains - The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of an economy based on efficient and streamlined supply chains and logistics and nowhere more acutely than the supply of PPE and wider medical supplies. As local government moves toward a more localised approach to delivering services, this needs to be coupled with promoting local organisations and maximising the use of public money. We need to bring together our collective purchasing powers to support local spend and help local businesses.

We were mandated to support our contracts and commercial suppliers over this period and in doing so, we have recognised that very little of our commissioning is focused on local suppliers and again for sake of efficiency and economies of scale, we have gone for bigger and more corporate partners. Into the future we must focus on local suppliers that provide more resilience in time of crisis.

New relationships with the businesses community -  The government programme of grants and loans is allowing us to engage in new ways with our local business communities. Many of us have strong relationships, but they have always been primarily transactionally based. Now we need to ensure that these significant injections of public funds into private companies can reap real local benefits (beyond employing local people) by also giving back to local communities well beyond corporate social responsibility (CSR).

We need to find ways of embedding a mutual relationship that sees better linking up - and in possible pandemics - and the use of businesses’ significant resources in local places.  This will require dialogue which is already beginning to emerge through the reopening of high streets, but must also look beyond into the collective ownership of how we create and sustain local economies that rely less on the car, move away from retail reliance and pave the way to support a wider ecosystem of support for smaller businesses who are going to be most badly affected. The principle of mutual aid, must be extended to our business community.

The future will require new relationships and a new local focus - and it is up to us all in local government to seize this chance.

Nazeya Hussain is executive director of place for The Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames. Other contributors include Tom Stannard, corporate director regeneration and economic growth for Wakefield MBC; Claudette Forbes, regeneration consultant; Nabeel Khan, director, enterprise jobs and skills for Lambeth LBC and Professor Dominic Harrison, director of public health and wellbeing for Blackburn with Darwen Council

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