Gavin Callaghan is the former leader of Basildon Borough Council in Essex. Whilst serving as Leader, Gavin steered the council through the COVID19 crisis and secured the council’s financial base. Gavin believes greater devolution powers have been and are essential for better government and in this blog he walks us through five foundations he believes have become key for any government around the world during the pandemic.
There are many lessons to be learnt from COVID and the way in which governments and territories across the world have dealt with one of the greatest challenges of the modern era.
People will rightly look to use the pandemic to shine a light on public health challenges at home and abroad and expose the correlation between growing levels of health inequalities in poorer countries and communities and the prevalence of the virus to be most lethal in these localities. Others will look at the decision-makers and question their timing, their preparedness and the efficacy of their responses to the pandemic and its economic and human consequences.
Whilst it is easy to think only of the decisions made by the Presidents and Prime Ministers of countries all over the world, the story of COVID and the role of local government should not be forgotten. Strong local government has been essential to combating the spread of the virus and staving off the worst excess of the economic catastrophe for businesses and industry. Local and regional government have been at the heart of the COVID response.
One of the key lessons from the pandemic must surely now be that greater devolution of powers, away from centralised governments, into cities, towns and villages, wherever in the world you are, is essential. And I would offer five foundations for why I would draw this conclusion from COVID for governments all over the world.
1 – Connected Communities
Councils can act as phenomenal facilitators to a range of service providers. This means they can work to bring the voluntary and not-for-profit sector, together with the private and public sectors to deliver services across a multitude of platforms.
In the UK this was best demonstrated through the establishment of Community Hubs. Within 24 hours of the Prime Minister placing the UK into the first lockdown, Councils already had their community hubs up and running. This meant that they were able to be a ‘one stop shop’ for all a resident’s needs, whether that was accessing food and medicine, accessing mental health counselling and support or help to combat social isolation. Phone-lines were quickly established, council officer teams were redeployed across the council and communications campaigns were quickly establish which were designed to appeal to the local population and increase compliance with the lockdown and testing.
Further, because councils were so connected to their communities, they also understood much quicker than any government body or quango, the demographics, the dangers and the economic impact of the virus and of lockdowns on different communities within their boroughs and municipalities. They used their local data sets to identify areas where testing would be needed quickest and more regularly and where communication campaigns needed to be deployed more frequently. For instance, in areas with larger manufacturing bases, where workers were able to return to work earlier, the risk of virus transmission were higher, so more testing and more communications were needed. This provided an agility that central government would not have been able to identify and coordinate with anywhere near the pace and efficacy that councils were able to provide.
2 – Logistics
Secondly, councils demonstrated that they were able to coordinate logistics far better than any other arm of government. In the UK this was particularly demonstrable in the establishing of vaccine centres, in the depths of a cold winter, where elderly patients were being asked to attend a public appointment for the first time in nine months. Councils were able to coordinate, alongside NHS colleagues, the logistics needed to make the process quick and easy. This is because councils have access to a far-reaching volunteer pool, are used to managing public events and crowds, including car parks, queuing systems and entry and egress points from public buildings.
Indeed, councils’ involvement in the logistics of the vaccination centres gave many older and more vulnerable people, far more trust and confidence in the process.
Councils also led the efforts to secure supermarket delivery slots for the vulnerable. In many cases the councils identified the names and addresses of vulnerable residents before the NHS or government had contacted the individuals. Councils worked with local manufacturing businesses to get a local supply of PPE and ventilators into hospitals and care homes.
The clear lesson in logistics terms for governments, is that in order to combat the issues that would otherwise ‘fall through the cracks’ but which are essential to the day-to-day operational response to a crisis like COVID, councils must be utilised and given the freedom to intervene across the public sector in their localities, to stand up new services quickly, safely and effectively.
3 – Advocacy
Local authorities have had a key role to play in advocacy on behalf of their towns, cities, villages and this has been vital. It has also shown the power of regional local government. In the UK, the Combined Authority Metro Mayors have played a key role in securing additional financial support for their municipalities. This has helped businesses, helped to ensure infected workers stayed at home and self-isolated and where necessary, schools were given flexibility to move to home-schooling in order to reduce transmission rates amongst the under-18 population.
In Liverpool, where infection-rates were the highest in Europe, the Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram negotiated additional resources from government in the form of mass-testing sites and an additional £44million of grant funding for businesses forced to close as stricter lockdown restrictions were enforced.
In Sheffield, the Metro Mayor Dan Jarvis launched a £860million revitalisation fund, to ensure that the recovery for businesses and local councils would be secured.
In Greater Manchester, the Metro Mayor Andy Burnham was engaged in a stand-off with central government over financial support but later secured £60 million in additional monies for the 10 councils in his area. He has also led on securing mass-vaccination sites being established in response to the growing Delta variant in his area.
The Local Government Association which represents all councils in England lobbied the government for more than £10billion of funding to help councils to undertake their work and secure their loss of income from reductions in taxation due to people not working.
Councils also played a role in making representations to central government over changes to their grants criteria in order to support more self-employed people. They established free legal phonelines so that workers were able to speak to employment lawyers for free to understand their rights in a fast-changing legal landscape.
Without local council leaders and Mayors shining a light on what was happening in localities and shaping the policy response to these challenges, there is every chance that central government would either have overlooked the issue, or instead tried to find a ‘one size fits all’ solution that would have had very different outcomes and return on investment for the taxpayer.
Whilst the exchanges between central and local government were not uncontentious, by listening to the advocates from different regions of the country, more bespoke policies and packages were put together, which helped the regions and helped central government.
4 – Recovery
Almost immediately after the full nature of the pandemic of the became clear, councils began to look at how they would structure their recoveries. Councils began formulating action plans and recovery strategies with a view to using the crisis as a catalyst to new regeneration projects that would get local people working, but also help to shape the place-making agenda.
Many councils have decided to use the newly formed community spirit that COVID engineered to place a higher currency on local art and culture. Central government worked in tandem with local government to call for ‘oven-ready’ infrastructure projects that they could help to get off the ground immediately.
5 – Resilience and empathy
The fifth foundation relates to local government resilience and empathy. Since the global financial crisis, local and regional governments have seen demand on their services increase, whilst resources from central government have decreased. Despite these financial and cultural challenges, councils have shown throughout the COVID pandemic that they were resilient.
Councillors also display an empathy with their communities, their major employers, their local community groups, that is lost on the bigger central government scale. Often when the public were in crisis during the pandemic, whether that be uncertainty over their health, their income, their employment status or the rules and regulations of the lockdown, it was their local councillor or council leader, rather than their Member of Parliament or a Minister, that they turned to. Their first port-of-call was local and they expected the answer to come from the council, which it invariably did.
And the public noticed how their council performed during COVID. In the UK, the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) found in a survey in November 2020 that a staggering 79% of people who were asked, were happy with their local authority.
The public trust in local government was found to be nine times higher than in central Government. The survey demonstrated that more than 55% of people wanted local government to have a greater say in the decision-making in their area, with only 6% of respondents putting faith for local decision-making in the hands of central Government ministers.
In today’s politics, when apathy and misinformation tends to have a higher currently that voting and trust, these figures reveal something seismic in the shift in the populous’ psyche.
A key lesson for governments all over the world to learn from data such as this, is that trust and confidence in politics and the political process, which has been under such savage attack in the last half decade from the rise in misinformation and the impact of social media, will be rebuilt through greater devolution to Town Halls and local councils, not but greater centralisation to governments.
Local government was at its best during the pandemic. It showed it cared, it was connected and it was ahead of the curve. As US President Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘The Government closest to the people serves the people best’. That was certainly true during COVID and it will be even more true in the years to come.