We are optimists in local government. But that optimism is being stretched to breaking point: by this pandemic, by ongoing public service austerity, rising demand, insecure finances and stalled devolution. As the context worsens and our early hopes of ‘building back better’ dim, we’re going to have to dig deep.
In April, CLES – the national organisation for local economies – argued that we faced a moment of historic importance. Our argument then, as it is now, was that this pandemic will require unprecedented action to safeguard the wellbeing of millions, but that it also represents an unprecedented opportunity to drive a huge transformation and build a greener and fairer society. Yet, as the months have passed, these big changes have not materialised. If we are to live up to the necessity and opportunity that COVID-19 has afforded us, there are three key things we are going to have to confront.
1-We are in a rollercoaster loop
It is common to hear and think that we are working toward a time when this is ‘over’, that we can get back to ‘normal’ or even a ‘new normal’. While these notions are comforting, we should be under no illusions: this is not a mere hiatus, a bump in the road by which we will arrive back at a pre-COVID world.
Of course, we hope this particular pandemic will end soon, but this is not a linear crisis, with a beginning, middle and end. Rather, this is a part of a rollercoaster loop which includes the ongoing climate crises and probable future pandemics. Before and during COVID-19, we have been – and remain – in a long and growing emergency, with varying moments of intensity. There is no ‘over’. We are in it now, and we must make the changes that break us free from this loop. We are experiencing huge structural economic changes, including a massive shift in city centre working and life, with accompanying economic recession and growing social destitution. The old spatial plans, with past economic geographies and relative certainties, are now of a former age. We now need to break out of this rollercoaster loop and make the massive transition away from fossil fuels, including delivering a green New Deal for our economy, workers and communities.
2-Don’t believe the hype
Many policies and approaches to the economy before COVID-19 were failing and hyped beyond what they were likely to achieve.
Consider levelling up. This election slogan and ‘agenda’ is bandied around, but the reality remains: stalled devolution, deepening inequalities, growing social destitution and people in poorer areas dying more than in richer areas.
To all intents and purposes, levelling up does not exist in any meaningful policy, resource or outcome sense. We need to start agitating for the changes that will make the truly big transition. We need to make the case for a new constitutional settlement for England, a new social contract and an end to the centralisation that has bedevilled England for decades.
Desperate for progress, we are hungry to grab onto solutions. Take the recent resurgence in community solidarity, so evident during the first national lockdown. This community power allied to the local and nation state is a potential energy (and an anger) to be harnessed.
A movement which, if fully embraced, could tackle systemic inequalities and injustices. However, we must be wary of how its potential power can be neutered or diluted, in a rush to build consensus.
For instance, with strong echoes of David Cameron’s failed Big Society, the recent work of Danny Kruger borrows some decent ideas, but these are collated under a vague ‘social covenant’ concept, with little intent to put community power to good use in addressing the failings of the market and fossil capitalism and build a new economic democracy.
We are in a period of fundamental and monumental change. Local government and communities are going to have to step up and step out of our comfort zones. We must develop even more creative zeal and be prepared to be more belligerent and more angry.
We will need to dig deep but make no mistake: the fight is on.
Neil McInroy is chief executive of CLES – the national organisation for local economies