Welcome to the first issue of The MJ for 2021. Here we are, COVID cases rising, hospitals close to breaking point, communities in need of support and a Twitter furore in full swing with parents’ pictures of the meagre rations designed to replace school dinners.
The 2010s were the ‘lost decade’ of public services, 10 years of missed opportunities as councils battled with their budgets. If they were lost years, what was 2020? Utterly adrift, misplaced in a sea of crisis as local authorities spend month after month bailing out the boat.
As grim as it all sounds, 2020 has had its upsides and things can be better for 2021. It has been a year where we all learned to value family, friends and a walk in the sun. A year when public service workers have been appreciated, and local authorities have transformed overnight to meet the needs of their communities.
2021 is the beginning of the end of COVID, and for local government the next transformation journey has just begun. We are not facing a further decade of austerity so much as carrying on with the new normal – but now with strengthened local partnerships and a sharper focus on strong communities.
There are some major hurdles ahead. Fixing finance is more important than ever – and business rates less of a solution. Government’s quick fixes – to raise council tax precepts and push councils towards commercialism – now cause more problems than they solve.
And then there is social care. The stop-gap COVID cash may have masked the graph of doom, but we are nowhere near resolving our care problems.
Camilla Cavendish, tasked with shaking up social care, has said COVID will lead to a greater grip from central Government. If anything, the reverse should be true – the pandemic has proven central Government just doesn’t do delivery.
This is a Government that fails to learn its lessons, but I hope it sees a centralised care service would be the biggest mistake of all.
But the biggest risk for 2021 is a crisis of deprivation. Those hit hard by the economic fallout of the pandemic failing to pay their rent or feed their families. Food poverty should not be a feature of modern Britain, but I hope councils helping people back on their feet will offer a bit more dignity than the school meals fiasco this week.