Creating a long-term new normal

By Adam Cunnington | 09 April 2020

In the midst of these unprecedented and difficult times cause by the coronavirus pandemic, it isn’t easy to see beyond the end of the week, let alone the end of the crisis.

However, this week in The MJ  the chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) Dr Jonathan Carr-West, raised a hugely important point, which resonated strongly with my own thinking: now is exactly the time to make the argument for the world we want to live in.

Why?

Because the coronavirus has given every single person in Britain a hugely important moment of clarity about what we value most in society.

Life has been upended for so many of us; loved ones have and will continue to pass away, many will lose their livelihoods, pupils will lose valuable education whilst others have seen all of their exams cancelled including A-level and GCSEs. It is likely the economy will likely enter a deep recession, the after-effects of which could be felt for decades as the country labours under incredible levels of debt.

COVID-19 has changed our physical boundaries, changed our relationship with families and friends and made people and Governments across the world rethink their role in society and rethink what they value.

The incredible response to the Government’s call for NHS volunteers is just one example of the Government and people’s moment of clarity.

More than 750,000 registered to become NHS volunteer responders with more than half a million responding in the first 24 hours, while Stockport Council launched a job matching service in just three days to match people who’ve found themselves out of work to employers’ experiencing a surge in demand.

With celebrities, sports people, and everyday figures of authority side-lined and forced to remain at home, health workers, lorry drivers, food producers, and our army of local government workers have been designated as key workers. When it comes to the crunch Britain values frontline workers more than footballers and supermarket staff more than supermodels.

In many discussions I have had, people talk of when life returns to ‘normal’. Now is a time to reconsider what is ‘normal’ and search instead for a ‘New Normal’.

Not just search for how we adapt to the New Normal we’re all experiencing now but how we create a long-term New Normal for Britain.

Newness, renewal and the opportunity to consider what we would like the long-term New Normal to be should be one of the biggest positives to emerge from these troubling times.

One thing that has been increasingly apparent to me over the last ten years at Public Sector Plc and working with our council partners is that the one of the great failures of our society, alongside failure to act meaningfully on climate change, is the increasingly stark level of social inequality evident wherever you look.

To me, Brexit was as much an expression of powerlessness and disenfranchisement as it was a commentary on our relationship with Brussels. It was a cry from those feeling left behind and let down by governing structures that feel remote and disconnected from their daily lives.

If, when we reach the long-term New Normal, it leaves half of our country even further behind, it will be a devastating failure of society.

As it is inconceivable that government, in all its forms; national, regional and local, won’t have a huge role to play in pulling the country towards a better future, providing the stimulus needed to move the economy forward.

Indeed, we will all have our part to play, individually and corporately. I would like to think that the future we would all wish for ourselves and others is kinder, more equitable and significantly more focused on wellbeing. The wellbeing of our families, our communities and our planet.

Giving metro mayors and local government leaders more devolutionary powers will be hugely important for recovering and rebuilding communities more quickly from the impact of COVID-19. The ability of central government to do this for all areas will be an immense stretch. Let's give local government the powers to do this.

The questions we must ask ourselves, and can be planning for even now, are those that have the potential to shape lives for a generation to come. There won’t be enough money to go around and there will be painful choices to be made in how best to rebuild shattered lives and a shattered economy.

As someone who has been involved in place-making for his entire career, I am acutely aware of the role that places, communities and our homes have in shaping lives, for better or for worse.

Building new and stronger communities must be at the heart of the long-term New Normal.

The increase in the lending limit available to councils through the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) will be an important part of this as local authorities across Britain will look at how they can use regeneration and development projects in their towns, cities and communities to kick-start the economy following the impact of COVID-19.

Raising the lending limit from £95bn to £115bn, with the potential for it to rise as high as £135bn, increases the borrowing available to councils by almost half (42%).  It is also really pleasing that the Treasury has lowered the PWLB interest rates back to the pre-October levels for local authorities looking to support housing projects through their Housing Revenue Accounts.

However, just as employees have had their wages covered by the state at this time local authorities also need certainty about their short-term funding settlement for COVID-19 and their long-term funding settlement in the 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review.

Creating better homes and better communities across Britain will help to level-up Britain and more importantly create better lives for all of us.

Let’s agree to harness our collective experience of the devastating effects of COVID-19 to work together to build a better country and a better long-term New Normal.

And let us leave no one behind on this journey.

Adam Cunnington is chief executive of Public Sector Plc

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