Ask someone standing on their doorstep this Thursday who they are clapping for and “the local council” may not be their first answer.
Yet as people’s worlds shrink to walking distance, we are all increasingly reliant on our local authority. Not only to make sure the bins are emptied, but to provide emergency shelter for rough sleepers; support for those living in dangerous situations; tax relief for local businesses; and to distribute food parcels. And all this from organisations that have been cut to the bone by a decade of forced savings.
Though it is hard to imagine right now, even bigger challenges lie ahead. Councils have been promised more money – but it will be needed to fill the chasms left by austerity, while also dealing with the economic fallout of this crisis.
Councils will be faced with more residents in need of support, but will have less revenue with which to support them as local growth stalls. Then there are global factors: the climate crisis, the accelerating technological revolution, growing discontent with democracy. These trends will take longer to transform our lives than this virus, but they will ask similar questions about the ability of our society and political structures to learn, adapt and survive.
But hope – and the whisper of a solution – can be found in the resurgence of community spirit. The spontaneous creation of mutual aid groups and the overwhelming response to the call for NHS volunteers demonstrate that, when the going gets really tough, British people come together to support each other. And, when local public services and communities join forces, action becomes all the more powerful.
Communities and public bodies working together to deliver services might be more visible in our current situation, but it isn’t new. For the past few years, local authorities have broadened the range of voices in local decision-making through citizens’ assemblies (such as Camden council’s citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis) and Poverty Truth Commissions.
Some have created community coordinators to help reduce demand for public services by mobilising communities. In Haringey, these coordinators led the launch of a new community initiative, Big Up My Street, matching people who need small acts of support – such as mowing the lawn and doing paperwork – with others willing to help.
Community-led revolutions of control over public assets and services are springing up around the UK. In Barrowcliff, Scarborough, the National Lottery-funded Big Local scheme handed residents £1m to spend as they saw fit. A steering group was formed with residents in the driving seat.
This community is commissioning and designing services for families in need – such as a breakfast project in the summer school holiday, classes for parents “struggling with everyday life”, and a programme providing a range of support to prepare children for the world of work.
These projects are successful because they give community members a real say over how money is spent. They also make services more sustainable: enabling communities to feel responsibility for the services they value helps to ensure their survival when public resources are stretched.
Our research at the New Local Government Network is beginning to show that local authorities that have already built strong relationships with their communities are one step ahead when it comes to dealing with the current crisis. Councils such as Wigan, for example, with a strong history of community engagement, are able to integrate new mutual aid groups into tried-and-tested arrangements, rather than having to create new systems from scratch.
Essex county council’s public health team, meanwhile, spent the past two years developing a successful digital-first approach to critical public health and wellness issues, building relationships with the administrators of local Facebook groups and working with them on commissioning services, such as mental health first aid training.
Now the council is working with community groups to help curtail the spread of fake news by setting up a central Facebook page as a credible source of information.
The pandemic has shown us that, in a global crisis, the scale for action is local. People suddenly confined to their homes are discovering they truly inhabit a small world, where essential travel means no further than the corner shop, and neighbours are the most useful support network in self-isolation.
The local public services that emerge intact – or even stronger – from this crisis will be ones where councils have had the imagination, resource and humility to work in partnership with residents, rather than struggle to meet every need alone.
It is also essential that national government recognises the enormous role councils and communities are playing, and resource and empower them accordingly. After all, collaboration is for life, not just for crisis.
• Charlotte Morgan is a senior policy researcher at the New Local Government Network