Keeping it local

10 November 2020

One of the many lessons we’ve learnt over the last few months is that services are best delivered locally, by people who understand the needs of their communities.

Obviously, as district councils, we knew this already, but it still seems to come as a surprise to many in central government.

Northern leaders called for months for local government to take the lead in test and trace, while the numbers of COVID-19 cases continued to soar.

According to the Local Government Association (LGA), local contact tracing systems have a 97 per cent success rate at finding close contacts and advising them to self-isolate. That compares with just under 60 per cent reached by call centre staff.

Even communities secretary Robert Jenrick eventually acknowledged that local knowledge was 'bound to be better' than a call centre.

Now we’re heading into another lockdown, which will only be effective if the test and trace system is fixed. I am relieved that the Government has started handing over some of the responsibility for contact tracing to local authorities. How much more effective would the Covid-19 response have been, had this happened sooner?

Another prime example is the provision of school meals during holidays for those children who need them most.

The Government chose not to help these children over the October half-term, but in Craven, and across the country, local councils, businesses, charities and residents worked together to make sure nobody in their communities went hungry. 

Thanks to the incredible campaign launched by Marcus Rashford, together with pressure from local communities and leaders around the country, I’m delighted that the Government has now had a change of heart and is setting aside £170m to help feed disadvantaged children over the Christmas holidays.

However, the negotiations with local leaders over the temporarily parked tier system contributed to a growing sense of “them and us” – creating further divisions between national and central government, and the North and South of England.

So is public trust in central Government waning? It’s local councils who are gearing up to support businesses and residents through this lockdown, with the help of funding from government. We need to learn the lessons of this pandemic and think differently about how public services can work more effectively in the future.

The recent report published by the Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute and the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) recommends a localised approach to empowering communities in a post-COVIDage.

Devolution is a key part of this but if it also comes with the abolition of district councils and the creation of mega unitaries, there is the real danger that services become less local, not more local.

In fact, the report points out how recent reorganisation of local councils has reflected central government priorities and not those of local communities. Well worth thinking about!

Perhaps, if the Government invested more in local authorities, and less in failing, centralised systems run by private companies, we could all get on even better with the job of supporting our communities.

Paul Shevlin is chief executive of Craven DC


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