As the grim data from ONS over the last few weeks has shown, the impact of COVID-19 is particularly acute for places with higher levels of deprivation. Place does matter, now more than ever and any ‘bounceback’ from this crisis will be severely tempered by the legacy of austerity.
Whilst nowhere in England has escaped austerity, it has had a disproportionate effect on the North. IPPR North’s research has shown that since 2009, public sector employment in the region has shrunk by 20.9 per cent; eight of the 10 worst-hit police authorities are in the North; and between 2009/10 and 2016/17 total public spending in the North fell by £6.3 billion in real terms – more than any other region.
Local authorities have been clinging on in recent years, paring back more and more local services with huge swathes of social care removed and vulnerable children and adults left high and dry. And now, a global pandemic on top of years of underinvestment threatens to vaporise any remaining capacity. As funding from central Government has dried up, local authorities have been encouraged to invest in property regeneration, often in town centres to bolster their income. Now of course, these investments are threatened with recession. It is a perfect storm which means that many City Councils are teetering on the brink. There will be no easy bounce-back.
In the midst of COVID-19, it has been disappointing to witness how local government’s efforts during have almost been taken for granted. There has been is little or no public acknowledgement of the heroic efforts that local authorities have taken to safeguard the most vulnerable in their communities. Nor have the Government publicly recognised the financial strain that local authorities are under or the urgent need for a post COVID-19 debate on what a proper, fair and sustainable funding settlement might look like for local government going forward.
What we will need to help us recover from COVID-19 is speed and initiative, of the type shown by local authorities during the crisis to date. Our recovery will be even slower, more difficult and unequal if it depends on waiting for Whitehall to formulate a plan from the centre. As has been clear during the COVID crisis, the centre tends to ignore what is happening locally and assume that it knows best. This is old fashioned statecraft which has been found wanting during this crisis.
Now is the time to commit to a better way of doing things which brings decision making closer to the lives of the people who are most affected. Now is the time to do ‘all it takes’ to level up the capacity of local government to act, not only to finally recognise their important role but to strengthen our collective resilience for the future.
Sarah Longlands is Director of IPPR North