The Covid-19 pandemic continues to have the most profound impact on our economy, society and public services. Nick Forbes, the Leader of Newcastle City Council, argues that the locality is the front line.
Whether related to the direct health impact of Covid-19 or the economic and social upheaval that has followed, it is the most vulnerable and disadvantaged that have been hardest hit, despite them being those on who we have relied the most. We know that inequalities – of gender, age, wealth, and particularly those of race – are being exacerbated. Those who were ‘just about managing’ face an uncertain future within an economy that may be changed permanently. And those who are most vulnerable – such as those we are currently shielding, our unemployed young people, black and minority ethnic communities, those who are homeless and families with complex needs – will face difficulties that force us to rethink the way we deliver welfare and public services.
The locality is the front line. Across the NHS, social care, emergency services and within many of the unseen functions of local public services, the speed and quality of the response at the local level has been remarkable and has helped to safeguard the health and wellbeing of many people. Yet, local government has been underfunded and undervalued for over a decade. Despite this, local authorities have stepped up with energy and innovative thinking, establishing new services, supporting community organisations and their work with the most vulnerable. This has included providing clear information in the absence of government advice, sourcing and sharing essential personal protection equipment provisions, engaging with the business community and providing grant support.
Community bodies and communities themselves have stood up to make sure that social distancing need not mean social disconnection; I am immensely proud of the way in which the people of Newcastle responded to the crisis. Indeed some communities have been revitalised by the importance of simple, human connections in this time where isolation is all too possible. What have sometimes felt like mixed national messages have been translated at a local level into collective action. A shift to local leadership of tracking, testing and tracing, with Newcastle as an early lead on this, is tacit acknowledgment of the strength of our partnerships and our unique convening role, as well as our competence and resilience when the pressure of delivering services has never been greater.
The scale of adaptation and recovery from this crisis means that it needs to be a national effort, but will be led on the ground by our cities, regions and places. As local leaders we have a duty to think not only about how we mobilise around the immediate impact of the virus but also to plan steps towards our longer-term recovery. This means having clarity about the values that underpin those steps and what kind of society, economy and public service settlement we should be aiming to create.
Prospects for our social and economic recovery will depend on our ability to reimagine what growth really means. For me, this is an economy that is lower carbon, more inclusive and equitable, and underpinned by a new model of productivity that values health, wealth and the environment in a new ‘triple bottom line’; outcomes that depend on each other and should be shared by all. The cross-sector collaboration that has defined the public service response to the Covid-19 peak needs to be the first stage in a new model that redefines universalism, delivering services to all, for a new era, and is underpinned more than ever by positive relationships between the business, government and civil society.
We are already turning to a fundamental reimagining of our economy. Many of our assumptions about the way our society and economy should be organised are seriously challenged. Consider density in cities, which is now seen as a health problem as well as an economic benefit. Digital working is now more clearly a vital lifeline to learning and employment, not a discretionary luxury. What would have been counterintuitive thinking will quickly need to become a part of the mainstream.
Perhaps the two most profound of these policy dilemmas relate to climate and work. Both are fundamental to the future of Newcastle and the North East. For example, we know that one consequence of lockdown has been a reduction in carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions; this has been a welcome step on the road to a world where more people are choosing to walk and cycle to such an extent that this challenges the dominance of the car. We want to kick start our economy, but we do not want to compromise our commitment to reaching net zero and accelerating the climate emergency. And we want to take this opportunity to create new, productive, rewarding jobs in renewables and green energy, that will not only support our net zero ambitions but also support those displaced from industries worst affected by the pandemic.
Looking ahead, we must not make the same mistakes that were made after the 2008 financial crisis. If lockdown has taught us anything, it is that we place too little economic value on the things that keep us going as a society: care workers, hauliers, shop workers, nurses, couriers, teachers and support staff. Public services, including local government, have been undervalued and marginalised for far too long.
We must avoid a return to the discredited notion of austerity as the means of restoring financial health. We know it will do the opposite. We must also, now, take this opportunity to reframe our economy around the essential workers and services that have been so critical to the response to Covid-19. We need to explore ways and means to ensure a more democratic, inclusive economy; one in which we still produce world-leading firms and industrial expertise, alongside the foundational goods, services and infrastructure that good society is built on.
At the same time, we should reflect on the critical role that local government, and our partners in our places, have played in responding to the crisis. Now is also the time to revise our contract with government, based on a mutual understanding and respect for what we can both do, not on a directive basis where we are told what is best. The recovery must be both an economic and a social one, correcting the historic inequalities in outcomes, but it must also be a recovery and a reimagining of public services, especially at the local level. We must be relentless in our pursuit of growth that is fairer, better distributed, and is led collectively by those who know their places best. It is these challenges, and opportunities, that local government is addressing as we look to the future.
Cllr Nick Forbes is Leader of the Labour Group within the Local Government Association.