The light in COVID-19’s shade

By Charlotte Morgan | 27 January 2021

‘When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?’ The opening lines of Amanda Gorman’s superlative inauguration poem capture the weariness that many of us currently feel waking up to yet another bleak day in the COVID-19 pandemic.

But where the long and difficult slog of lockdown casts a seemingly never-ending shade over our lives, we can find – and have found – light in the resurgence of community spirit, neighbourliness and kindness in the face of immense adversity. The light shone brightest during the first lockdown, when communities swiftly and proactively came together to organise essential deliveries and other support to vulnerable or self-isolating households.

These brilliant community-powered approaches had significant implications for local public services, especially local councils. New Local’s latest research report Shifting the Balance, supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust, Carnegie UK Trust and Power to Change, identifies the kinds of strategies, practices and relationships that helped local areas manage the first lockdown. Through conversations with public and third sector representatives based across Great Britain, we found that the councils that responded most effectively to the first lockdown were those that enabled, rather than inhibited, the activities of community groups. We also found that many of these enabling councils are striving to continue their effective practices beyond the current crisis – shifting the balance of local power decisively away from public institutions and towards community-led action for the longer term.

Our report identified three types of ‘balance-shifting’ practices that characterised successful local responses.

Adaptations saw councils respond to the urgency of the crisis by speeding up or setting aside bureaucratic processes and forming deeper partnerships with the third sector and community groups. In Gwynedd, for example, the urgent need to reach all members of the community and use all available sources of funding to support the county’s COVID-19 response engendered greater collaboration between the local council and third sector organisations.

Innovations saw councils make better use of digital technology to build bridges between public services and communities and promote new ways of solving problems. In Sheffield, for example, the council set up online workshops to work more inclusively with communities. These workshops have continued to take place since the first lockdown to help the council shift to a more ‘dialogue-based approach’ to service design and delivery.

Collaborations saw teams comprising individuals from a range of local organisations and backgrounds increasingly assembled on place-based terms or based on participants’ ability to contribute. Departmental siloes and hierarchical mindsets within councils dissolved to make way for this whole-systems approach. In North Ayrshire, for example, six dedicated community hubs were established in public-facing facilities within each of the area’s six sub-localities. Within these, a small team of dedicated staff coordinated the local response and connected local people with what they needed through a blend of council provision and effort from neighbourhood volunteers.

One day, the shade of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions will pass. But that won’t mark the end of dark and difficult times. Recovering and rebuilding from this crisis will take many years to accomplish, and councils cannot lead every step of the way. The light provided by the community-powered approaches that drove local responses to the first lockdown must be retained.

New Local’s report sets out recommendations for embedding these approaches for the longer term, including the passage of a Community Power Act in England. Such legislation would follow in the footsteps of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act by nurturing community development and facilitating greater community participation in public services. Building back better must begin with the widespread enabling of community-led approaches – something that will only be possible if national government, local public services, the third sector and communities work together with sincerity and humility to make it so.

Gorman’s poem optimistically concludes: “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” New Local’s Shifting the Balance research demonstrated that community-led responses worked in the first lockdown. It is down to all of us to keep that community-powered light glowing in the years ahead.

Charlotte Morgan, Senior Policy Researcher, New Local

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