In many ways, the looming crisis facing us as inflation continues to soar – along with energy bills and interest rates – is not dissimilar to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It appears almost impossible to fathom the scale of the incoming impact, or to have any confidence our responses will touch the sides. What we do know is that only truly resilient communities will have a decent chance of protecting those most disadvantaged and vulnerable and then bouncing back.
Historically, resilience conversations in local government were focused on isolated one-off incidents that can be mitigated or prevented with infrastructure investment, good financial preparedness and sound emergency management procedures. Much like the pandemic, the cost of living crisis poses a different kind of prolonged and multi-faceted challenge, requiring a whole-systems response.
There are, and will be, deepening impacts at every level of society – from individuals, to families, communities, local economies and civic leaders. As the crisis deepens we will see increases in family breakdowns, children’s safeguarding issues, domestic abuse, mental health problems, the breakdown of community relations, and civil disobedience. All of this against an economic backdrop of stagflation, a recession, collapsing businesses and rising unemployment. We are at risk of allowing our residents to get trapped in a vicious cycle.
In Bradford, have been focusing on our locality-based prevention and early help work. We have been engaging with our communities to provide clear information that empowers residents to navigate the multiple funding streams and support offers available to them, ensuring our frontline employees – the majority of whom are also residents – understand too. This lessens the chances of anyone falling through the cracks. We commissioned various projects with civil society to address access to food, household goods, credit, etc.
Local authorities clearly cannot solve this crisis alone. As a sector we have repeatedly heralded the ‘lessons learned’ from COVID. Now it is time to put this learning into practice.
Data and intelligence-sharing across our systems and localities can help identify and target those who are most vulnerable, both in the immediate and in the longer-term. A whole-systems response that includes the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector as equal partners is fundamental to protecting those who need it most as we navigate future hardships.
Sustaining and deepening community engagement work is central to building capacity at a local level and developing social and community capital. This is all the more important as economic hardship threatens to undermine trust in institutions and between communities. Only by monitoring community relations and tensions within and across our places, while working together across our communities at a whole-place level, can we best mitigate the impacts on our society.
Partners from all parts of the economy have a role to play and, as local authority leaders, it is our job to convene those key players to unlock the maximum potential benefits for those we support.
We have been collaborating with finance companies, for example, to better understand financial literacy levels, financial products and approaches to loan repayment defaults. Meanwhile, we are continuing to have similar conversations with social housing providers, working together to understand how best to approach the upcoming financial uncertainty and its impact on residents’ ability to meet their rent payments. But it is central Government that has the financial and administrative muscle to head off the misery so many millions are facing.
As soon as possible, we need to be seeing targeted, substantial temporary benefit increases, coupled with proper limits on private sector rent increases and evictions to protect those most vulnerable.
Implementing a universal free school meals regime can ensure all children have at least one warm meal a day. To encourage cheaper and more eco-friendly energy and fuel usage, the Government could initiate a ‘turn it down a notch campaign’, urging all households to turn their heating down by one degree throughout the winter.
But, in the face of the ever-changing and unrelenting landscape of prolonged crises, with ongoing impacts that require long-term thinking, now is the time to go beyond our existing approach. We must consider innovative alternative measures, such as using our collective purchasing power to secure the most advantageous prices for utilities and essentials for our people.
By harnessing dynamic and innovative thinking we can begin deepening and accelerating work on the new, more resilient national economy, centralising efforts to pursue clean and sustainable growth, with national investment in retrofitting and renewables.
We can work to shift levelling up from rhetoric to meaningful and targeted delivery in a fair and equitable way, prioritising not only physical infrastructure, but skills, education, and community – perhaps even a universal minimum income?
One thing is clear: if we are to face the future with confidence, our next Prime Minister must have a strategy for putting resilience on a par with our most important statutory services. They must equip and turbo-charge local authorities’ ability to embed and deepen resilience by ensuring we have the resources and policy tools to be able to work with our communities to direct and respond to both short and long-term threats and crises.
Kersten England is the Solace spokesperson for civil and community resilience