The response to the coronavirus pandemic is a powerful reminder of the critical role that local government plays as advocate for and champion of its communities, co-ordinator of local action, and most crucially, a provider of vital services.
These services include social care, public health, environmental health, housing and homelessness services, refuse collection and so much more. It supports, partners and enables local social action and local voluntary action – and itself is providing support and even food to local vulnerable, at risk people.
Clearly, central Government has the key role in addressing the pandemic, but it cannot, does not and should not attempt to run everything from Whitehall. Rather, it has had to acknowledge the pivotal contribution of others especially local government.
In the current crisis, the most important public agency is the NHS and its staff. That said, while it is at the frontline, even it cannot address all the challenges without collaboration with local government.
Sadly, however, local authority capacity is considerably less than it might have been had there not been a decade of austerity. Over the last decade (and to some extent, for longer), local government has been sidelined, derided and under-funded by central government in England, with many local authorities having lost over half their funding. Services have been seriously cut, damaged and stretched. Staff have been underpaid, made redundant, transferred to outsourcing companies and too often subject to unfair attack in the media and by national politicians. And yet, during this crisis and despite the latter context, the sector has ‘stepped up’.
The coming months are going to be tough for everyone – but even when the crisis is over, the role of local government will remain critical as people return to work, schools re-open and other local economic and social activities resume. Local economies (including high streets and local businesses) will not be the same as they were in February of this year. Many people will be out of work, many in poverty and many facing a range of challenges from loss of work, loss of family members, to loss of key support for mental and other health issues. There is, in fact, an inevitability that inequality and hardship will be worse than before the crisis – and they were already dire.
There seems to be change in public opinion and political opinion too. There has been a growing recognition that the state at local and national level matters and this change in opinion manifests itself in many ways. The dominant contemporary view is that only the state can respond to crises such as COVID-19 but there is a read across that the state at local and national level has a major role in public service delivery, public health, public protection and economic sustainability.
Markets and small state politics do not have the answers. Public services must be properly funded and public service staff well paid and respected. There is such a thing as society and this a good thing. Social solidarity matters, as does social justice. Gross inequalities are detrimental to the public good and community wellbeing. This change in opinion must not be allowed to be temporary; it must be permanent and turn from opinion into long term political action.
There is no reason to assume that post-COVID-19 there will be a return to what existed in January. Change is inevitable. Let’s ensure there is beneficial change.
As part of such change and consequential political action, it is essential that the pandemic is a catalyst for a renaissance in local government and that national Government enables such a renaissance and does not continue to treat local government as either its agents to boss around, or as irrelevant to long-term national recovery. The Government has rightly found the money to finance the immediate response to the crisis – but it must not, knee-jerk-like, revert to a programme of austerity once the crisis (or this phase of it) is over. Indeed, there is a very strong case for significantly restoring local authority funding to make up for the huge gaps left after a decade of cuts.
Beyond funding, there is a need to: learn lessons from the current crisis; acknowledge the resilience, strength and innovative contribution being made by local authorities across the country; recognise the need to end fragmentation of services; and better appreciate the benefits of local integration/co-ordination of public sector resources, public service planning and budgeting. There could also be local government-led, local COBRA-style bodies to address local, regional and national crises at the local level.
All that said, funding matters as does political will at local and national level. It is worth noting that funding has been found to address issues such as rough sleeping and to do so in short measure. This demonstrates there where there is the political will to ensure money can be found and action taken. There should be no need for more reports and political procrastination on addressing homelessness and many other social needs. Local government has a key role in delivering results. It must have the tools, funding and licence to act.
For its part, local government will need to carefully consider its post-pandemic future – which I believe should include showing local leadership to pursue equity, equality and social mobility; directly delivering services; building resilient inclusive economies based on foundational principles such as community wealth building; and shaping places in partnership with others including civil society, the wider public sector and local businesses. There is much to debate but action must follow speedily – this is not the time for long deliberation.
These next months are going to be sorely testing for local government and especially for its frontline staff. There will be much exhaustion, but I am confident that most local authorities and their political leaders, councillors, senior officers and staff will rise to the occasion. The evidence to date is that they are doing so.
Energy and focus must be on the immediate for the next weeks, but it would be a serious missed opportunity if consideration were not to be given to the future.
As the tide turns and we can look to the future, local and central government must take the opportunity to restore local governance with well-funded local authorities acting as the democratic leaders and shapers of places.
This tragic and horrible period can end with a renaissance in local government and stronger communities.
John Tizard is a strategic adviser, former council leader and former chair of the National Association of Voluntary and Community Action