Ralph Berry on how the Covid pandemic has revealed the value of local partnerships
As we went into the Covid-19 pandemic, local government in England had just begun to emerge from a decade of cuts and centralisation that has seen many authorities hollowed out. It appeared we were emerging from the punitive regime of austerity and care precepts into a world where suddenly the local mattered and the central had need of the local. The centralist municipal structures we have had since modernisation (with small groups of councillors holding most power by allocation of roles) found that grassroots community-based decision making and co-ordination was a vital matter of near life and death. Localism was pulled back out of the archive.
‘Go spend what you need’ was the mantra. Suddenly the voluntary sector became the frontline as councils no longer had the numbers of staff to pick up emergency work – the same voluntary sector that has been squeezed to the edge by austerity. But the bills have not been met, and local government faces perhaps its toughest years since the 1930s.
Effective local partnerships have emerged, and we need to keep and build on them as a real locus of power and decision making. Detailed local knowledge and partnerships became vital in getting resources and links made to build the local Covid hubs. In Wibsey, my ward, all the churches opened up facilities and provided food and other support including befriending and emotional well-being.
The reversion to the old ways needs to be opposed. The reason is simple: community partnerships work. They can and will co-design more than just a food bank rota and meals for kids in school holidays. It’s not just councillors that have seen the reality of the fragility of our communities and the need for change. It’s just not in a programme yet.
It’s been a challenging time, with many local facilities lost to cuts and the old command and direct model of councillor activity being out of place. We’ve been pulling together the threads of local co-operation and solidarity across all communities and faiths, filling the gaps left by austerity. We have led work across agencies to secure support and protect the most vulnerable, filling the gaps that have grown in a centralist structure.
Councillors now emerge with a more detailed knowledge of the strength of their communities while Covid has blown open the inequalities in work, housing and health.
The status of public health had never been really secured in councils. The budgets were often raided for other purposes but now the Director of Public Health and the health brief is one that has to be used to tackle the agenda we face in recovery from Covid. We have forged new links to tackle some of this. We must not let the old ways slip back. Doing things to people or for people isn’t going to change things. Involvement and facilitating community voice is the key.