When coronavirus hit, local government was among the first responders.
Despite government funding ambiguity, huge unforeseen pandemic demands and costs, and an immediate and significant reduction in incomes, councils across the country kept people safe and informed.
In the face of slow and sometimes contradictory government advice, the efforts of Britain’s councils have been nothing short of heroic; from caring for shielded and vulnerable residents and finding accommodation for all rough sleepers, to redeploying teams to provide emergency provisions, mobilising armies of volunteers, sourcing urgent personal protective equipment (PPE), and supporting businesses and schools.
In short, local government – often the forgotten arm of government – has been maintaining the critical services that people depend upon, while also saving lives.
By early March, my colleagues and I at Hammersmith & Fulham had become uneasy about the Government’s approach to the pandemic. It was noticeably out of step with other liberal democracies successfully responding, and it ignored lessons that were already becoming clear.
Early projections indicated that, out of our borough’s roughly 200,000 citizens, around 1,000 risked losing their lives to the contagion in just its first 12 weeks.
“The efforts of Britain’s councils have been nothing short of heroic”
So, on 13 March, ahead of government instructions to curtail business as usual, we cancelled all meetings, moved our operation onto an emergency footing, and began a high-profile public health campaign, including posters and lamp-post banners, with the Stay Home, Save Lives message the Government also adopted (pictured).
In the absence of a government-mandated lockdown, we moved early to limit crowds in parks and other public places, increasing the number of enforcement officers ten-fold to help our residents maintain social distancing and keep safe.
Similar examples abound throughout the country. In London, local government, of all political colours, has never worked so closely, urgently agreeing new measures, and sharing problems and best practice – all of which accelerated our ability to act decisively and move at pace.
As Britain views the horizon, these vital qualities will prove critical to rebuilding our society and rebooting the UK economy. Public confidence in the Government’s lifting of its lockdown measures is essential if businesses are to survive and economic activity is to increase. Short of a widely available vaccine or effective treatments, people will need to feel there is substance to the Government’s test, track and trace approach – much of that relying on their all-important app.
But as the Bank of England speculates that this recession could be the worst since 1720, and the Treasury contemplates a U-shaped economic collapse with recovery holding off until 2023, public confidence cannot resuscitate the economy by itself. We need an economic miracle.
Such a miracle happened in the post-war Federal Republic of Germany. The Keynesian shot in the arm provided by the European Recovery Program (the Marshall Plan) was made more potent, in large part, because power and knowledge rested with its Länder and city states, which played the central role in remaking local economic ecosystems.
That should be part of the blueprint for Britain’s way forward. Give councils the powers and resources and they will deliver.