Watching events unfold in Ukraine has been a paralysing experience. It feels trivial to write about anything else, but anything one attempts to say about it feels inadequate to the brute enormity of the invasion.
Yet we have a duty in local government to look at the situation as clearly as we can and to think about what we can contribute.
In Ukraine itself local government is very much in the frontline with mayors playing a key role orchestrating the defence of their cities. Our role is nothing compared to that, but councils in the UK – nonetheless – have a part to play in several practical respects, and in two ways that are intangible but no less important.
The UK has taken in far fewer Ukrainian refugees than other European and NATO countries but, under political pressure, this number is sure to grow – and as it does councils will take the lead in crisis housing, resettlement and support. We already saw councils take this role effectively with little government support or guidance after the evacuation of Kabul and they are actively preparing to do so again.
Even in the UK, councils have an important civil defence role. They should be strengthening the local government systems and data against cyber attacks and must be ready to counter misinformation both directly about the conflict and about seemingly unrelated issues that impact on public health or community cohesion.
In a worst case scenario, if the conflict escalates, councils will also have a civil contingency role. Their emergency planning must encompass the potential for biological, chemical or nuclear attack. That this seems unthinkable should not prevent us thinking about it. Indeed we should remember that Russia has already conducted biological attacks in the UK.
While these events are unlikely, what is almost inevitable is that ongoing conflict will increase the costs of energy and of food, deepening a cost of living crisis that is already affecting millions of UK citizens. Once again, local government has a vital support role to play. And council finances will also be affected. We’ve already seen councils cancelling contracts with Russian energy suppliers and divesting investments from Russia. That’s a complex and expensive operation for a sector that is already under severe financial strain, but it’s an important act of solidarity.
This sort of moral leadership is one of the intangible ways in which councils must respond to this crisis. Communities across the country are battered by two years of the pandemic. Local leaders must find ways of giving voice to the moral purpose of those communities, helping them to support each other and steeling them to the further sacrifices that may be required.
Above all, in local government we must live our values. Local democracy and local governance are hardwired into our system and too often we take them for granted. But they go to the heart of this conflict.
Local democracy is about free elections and accountable public institutions. But it’s also about power and choice residing in the places and communities we inhabit. Belonging to us, not being imposed upon us. These are the values that people in Ukraine are fighting and dying to defend.
We are only a few weeks out from a set of local elections. Normally the majority of British citizens don’t bother to vote in them. This is one way we can honour the courage and the sacrifice of the Ukrainian people: by treasuring our democracy, realising how much we have to lose and how very, very lucky we are.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the LGiU