Now is the time for local councils to be given new esteem


During the pandemic, we’ve seen a welcome upsurge in voluntarism and generosity across villages and towns up and down the nation. In Devizes, St James’ Church was especially quick to mobilise resources and get stuck in. Within just a week of asking congregants and other locals to help, 344 volunteers had been vetted and referenced. This marked the start of three busy months of leafleting, delivering essentials and checking on vulnerable members of the community.

This is the right response. The virus spreads through networks of face-to-face encounters, and so it is right that we strengthen these very same networks for the future. We know from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that community engagement is key to public health. And the same applies to COVID-19. In fact, during this pandemic, health staff in Bavaria tracked and traced a single canteen saltshaker responsible for the spread of the virus around an entire factory.

While the NHS struggled to get supplies to those shielding across the breadth of the nation, hyper-local community groups outpaced them by a long stretch. It is estimated that 4,000 spontaneous ‘mutual aid groups’ were set up during the lockdown, and some 83% of people aged over 70 received an offer of support. Official systems then faced a new task: to be led by and support the mutual aid effort in all its informality and spontaneity.

This should become the norm: local solutions to local problems, supported by tiers of local government which are poised to invest in the bright ideas of local people. The pandemic has proved that [local] councils can flex and innovate at speed when led by their communities who have heaps of invaluable information and first-hand experience about what works in their neighbourhood.

There is legislative change afoot which must capture lessons learned over the last few months. The Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper will provide the sector with an opportunity to recalibrate the relationship between tiers of government. Additionally, the Housing White Paper will give local people greater influence in building a vision for their area through local design codes and neighbourhood plans.

Now is the time for local councils to be given new esteem and assert their expertise in community engagement. Local councils are the first tier of government and are therefore well placed to set an example. We need a new generation of local councillors who are ready to learn from the community, follow their lead and respond not just with short-term funding but a genuine longer-term investment in the places we are proud to live in.

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