It has become something of a cliché to describe the impacts of COVID-19 as unprecedented, and for many it has been overwhelming.
When I was deciding on my priorities for my year ahead as president of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT), I knew it was going to be demanding, with two of the biggest challenges I have known – leaving the European Union and the climate emergency. Add to these the future of local authority funding through the Comprehensive Spending Review, and what form the Shared Prosperity Fund will take as it replaces the European investment that supports so many of our programmes.
COVID-19 hasn’t blown those out of the water, but it has added an almost unimaginable level of complexity to an already difficult picture.
Place directors are faced with responding to the current pandemic and the need to enable social distancing in our places, and also how we recover, reset and renew across the medium and long term.
ADEPT’s immediate response to the pandemic was to monitor the impact on services, work with partners to produce safety guidance, create social media campaigns to support our highways and waste keyworkers and share intelligence with key government departments. Now, we are thinking about how we enable our communities to feel safe and confident as they work, travel and shop. Reallocating road space, opening up new cycleways and enabling park and pedal are some of the rapid changes we have started to make, but there will be many more.
Many will be rethinking how they manage their lives. With greater home working and renewed focus on local spaces, our connection to our places is changing. This will have implications for planning and development, the roll out of digital infrastructure, and how we travel and get our kids to school.
Inevitably, we are turning towards recovery and renewal. ADEPT has just published the Clean Growth Policy Position and the Green Finance Toolkit. Although these were begun before the pandemic, they are pivotal to reshaping the future as recovery and addressing climate change must be linked together. COVID-19 has shown the sort of societal change needed to address the climate emergency and how it might be done, but it has also placed a spotlight on social inequalities. From Extinction Rebellion to the widespread anti-racism protests across the country, many people are calling for change.
ADEPT has been saying for some time that growth must be clean and inclusive, and recent months have shown that this is more important than ever. This is our challenge to Government – we need to aim for more than recovery, we can’t simply go back to how things were before, our problems are too pressing. So, our message is a simple one: give us the funding and resources to rebuild our local places. We know local works and we understand the needs of our diverse communities, economies and environments. We just need to be enabled to do it, and that comes down to funding.
As local authorities, we must respond collectively to make the case for greater funding across the whole, not just piecemeal, department-specific pots. Place is fundamental – both in enabling the immediate adjustments to COVID-19, and in its preventative role. How we develop our places, structure local economies, plan transport infrastructure and build housing has a direct impact on reducing pressures on health, adult and children’s services. They have to be looked at in the round with the resources to match.
Local authorities are already at the forefront of this reset. ADEPT has set up the Economic Renewal and Recovery Task Force, which is working with EY to collate evidence and determine the themes and issues emerging for place. It is shaping up a new Live Labs proposal to address climate change in the wake of coronavirus, and will assist members through highlighting best practice, providing case studies and supporting place directors as they shape their recovery plans.
The coming weeks, months and years must bring a fundamental shift in thinking in how we enable work and travel, manage our health and social care, rebuild local economies and workforce skills, ensure the future of our young people and live our lives. Intrinsic to all of these is the future of place.
Nigel Riglar is president of ADEPT and director for environment and community services at South Gloucestershire Council