The new normal is that nothing is normal. Our lives have changed profoundly very quickly. Many people have lost their lives.
Meanwhile, local government is one of the organisations at the front line of the battle against COVID-19: supporting those who cannot leave their homes, coordinating volunteers and working with the thousands of grassroots mutual aid initiatives that have emerged over the last fortnight. On top of this councils have to keep running the services we need to secure the foundations of a functional society. And they do this in the face of staff shortages that are already starting to bite.
While so many in local government are working all hours, it’s hard to think about what comes afterwards, but there’s a growing consensus that this crisis will change the world in profound ways. That needs some interrogation of course; it’s very hard to tell in advance which crises instigate permanent change and which see a reversion (temporary or permanent) to the status quo. And sometimes it’s years before the real impact becomes clear. (Women in the workplace during and after WWII is an interesting example.)
Early thinking about the impact of coronavirus divides into the broadly optimistic and the more troubling.
On the positive side people are wondering if we will see more state investment, an increased valuing of key workers, a recognition of the importance of social care and a reset on social values and sustainability with new thinking about growth and what really matters to us.
Others fear we may see another decade of austerity to pay for the government’s interventions, excessive centralisation, increased surveillance and control, an exacerbation of existing economic and educational inequalities, a neglect of less visible services and increasing nationalism and isolationism.
None of this is set in stone of course - there are choices to be made - and we should be making the argument now for the world we want to live in on the other side of the pandemic. For local government there are three areas I’m particularly interested in:
- What do we learn about the appropriate levels of power and decision making? The COVID-19 pandemic shows that we need collaboration at international level and strategic national leadership. But it also demonstrates a vital role for local government and for community action. Does this crisis shed any new light on how power should be exercised at different levels and why? How do we play that forward into the debate on devolution and levelling up?
- What gets left behind? All the challenges local government faced pre-COVID - social care, sustainable finance etc - are only getting worse while attention is focused on this crisis What needs to happen post-COVID to fix this and what damage had been done in the meantime? What about less visible or popular services like community mental health – how do we ensure they are not forgotten in post-COVID spending decisions?
- What is the social and institutional impact? Will this bring us together or drive us apart? What’s the long-term effect on our well-being? Will it ameliorate or exacerbate existing trends around declining trust in institutions and democracy? What does that mean for councils as institutions?
It’s hard to think about these issues when we’re right in the middle of a full-blown crisis; when we’re busy and stressed and scared. But there’s a risk that it’s always too early until it’s too late. Those of us who can need to start asking the right questions now.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is the chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit