Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. In all sorts of ways local government’s response to COVID-19 has been exemplary: organising food and medicine deliveries, sourcing personal protective equipment, co-ordinating mutual aid groups, shifting to virtual working, setting up befriending groups.
Of course, mistakes have been made and some councils have been more effective than others, but across the country, it’s been an astonishing effort and one that many in the sector are rightly proud of.
There’s also a mood in every council I speak to that this moment represents a unique juncture for change. Councils have taken a quantum leap into agile working. As one council leader told our LGiU fortnightly podcast: ‘It’s probably not an exaggeration to say we went through five years’ worth of transformation in five days.’
So, there’s pride and a determination to change. But increasingly there’s also a sense of apprehension across the sector.
Some reasons for that are obvious. Many councils fear the economic impact of COVID will be an existential threat. While the Government’s recognition that councils should be compensated for some of their lost income is a step in the right direction, it’s too little too late and it sits within a strategic vacuum with no overall framework for the funding of local government beyond the current ad hoc settlement.
More worryingly, there are signs that government may wish to push councils into the firing line as the COVID blame game gets under way. We can see this in the idea that councils have been profligate in their borrowing and commercial investment and thus have only themselves to blame for their financial problems. Or indeed with the home secretary’s suggestion that local authorities were afraid to investigate Leicester sweatshops and so contributed to the upswing in COVID cases there.
Is this a sign of things to come? As one senior local government figure told me: ‘You don’t need to be paranoid to think government will start pointing the finger at councils, you just need to be aware of history.’
And we might add that different parts of local government are quite capable of pointing the finger at each other if we fall into the trap of a sterile, winner takes all argument about reorganisation.
This approach risks fatally undermining trust in public institutions at all levels. This really matters. We entered the pandemic with trust in democracy falling. Recent research from Harvard shows young people in particular are sceptical about democracy and attracted to authoritarian modes of government.
And there are good reasons why people have lost faith in our institutions. Some of the most pressing political issues of our moment centre on institutional failures. We see the demand for recognition from historically excluded groups and identities; the need to acknowledge that our institutional frameworks are built upon and entrench systemic inequality and discrimination; and an increasingly contested discourse around national (and local) identities.
But it’s possible to accept all that and to believe it shows not that institutions don’t matter but, precisely, that they do. We do need institutions, but we need them to change.
You can believe that we need more participation, more engagement, more direct democracy, while still believing there are institutional values such as accountability and representation that are worth preserving and, indeed, strengthening.
But that’s a difficult and nuanced set of conversations and it relies on high levels of trust. That trust cannot be rebuilt if different levels of government are seeking to divert blame on to each other. It will make it harder, not easier, for people to exercise agency and hold government to account.
People will see right through it and our public realm will risk becoming more fragmented than ever.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West is the chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit