The community response to coronavirus shows how trust in our political system can be rebuilt, says the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
When Steve Reed MP was Leader of Lambeth Council, he helped develop a new model for local government based on local leadership, co-operation and community empowerment.
Now, the Co-operative Councils’ Innovation Network, of which he is Honorary President, numbers 30 councils among its membership, all committed to reforming the way they work by building an equal partnership with local people.
Despite having been an MP longer than he was a council leader, Mr Reed insists he remains passionate about local government and committed to his cooperative principles.
“I genuinely believe that the UK is so over-centralised that it damages trust in our democracy because our decision-making system doesn’t take into account the views of people and communities that are affected by those decisions,” he says.
“We need to open up our politics so it’s more responsive, accessible, participative, and people genuinely feel that their voice can be heard in the decisions that affect their lives, communities and regions.”
The Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – appointed to Sir Keir Starmer’s first shadow cabinet in April – sees these issues being played out in the response to the coronavirus crisis, and says he is “amazed” by the work of councils during the pandemic.
“The Government is getting it wrong because they are not listening to the frontline”
He points to service collaboration and services shifted online “at pace”, and the development of community and mutual aid groups providing support to residents during lockdown.
“That’s an amazing transformation in just weeks. I don’t believe national government could act that quickly, even if it wanted to,” he says.
“It’s very important that professional politicians respect councils on the frontline enough to listen to their experiences in this crisis, because they are the ones engaged in delivering services that are really making a difference.
“It’s important that councillors use this time to assert their own voice and what they’re learning from this crisis about how we need to change our decision-making system and our government structures afterwards to make them more effective.”
Mr Reed adds: “There’s something about the response to this crisis at the level of the community that shows us how we can rebuild trust again. A big part of that, as politicians, is showing we trust people, rather than always expecting them to trust us.
“Everyone is horrified by the number of deaths we’ve seen, the isolation and loneliness, the vulnerable. But people will also tell you there are some things they want to keep.
“One of the things I hear them talk about a lot is this sense of neighbourliness, the sense of being a society again. That is something we can hold onto as we come out of this crisis, but we need to make sure that we are listening to and learning from the mutual aid groups, and working with them to see what role they can take on as society comes back to life.”
In contrast, he is critical of the Government’s centralised approach to the crisis.
“There is a general tendency to over-centralise rather than rely on the insight and expertise on the frontline, and that has made the Government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis less effective. They are getting it wrong – on personal protective equipment (PPE) distribution, testing and shielding – because they are not listening to the frontline.
“They got it wrong going into the lockdown, where they were too slow. I think they got it wrong on easing the lockdown; they seem to have gone too fast, even though we don’t have a track and trace system up and running to keep us safe.”
Mr Reed adds: “Look at Germany, which has had a really effective response to COVID-19. If you listen to German ministers, they will tell you that the fact they have more decentralised power, more local control, is the reason they’ve managed it so much better.
“I believe that’s true. Local councils know their local communities better, they know how they move around, they know where they congregate, they know where the challenging issues will be located and how to address them, they have the people in their public health teams who already have the contact-tracing expertise. So of course it’s going to work better if you localise it.”
He also thinks it is “extraordinary” the Government hasn’t done more to understand the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on different groups in society.
“It’s very clear that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities are suffering more than other communities,” he says.
“There are a number of factors contributing to that, but we don’t understand all of them. Many people in low-paid, customer-facing jobs are from BAME communities and they can’t work at home, they can’t self-isolate, they’ve been out there exposed to the risk of infection more.
“BAME communities are quite often more concentrated in areas of low-quality, overcrowded and multi-generational housing that makes it harder for people to self-isolate and protect more vulnerable members of the community from contracting disease.
“Underneath all of those issues lie the structural inequality of poverty. And poverty affects BAME communities more than it affects other communities.
“If you really want to challenge the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, we need to be looking at the structural inequality of poverty in our society and why some groups are less able to get access to the opportunities that other parts of society take for granted.
He adds: “There are some really big questions we have to ask ourselves here. I see the Black Lives Matter movement as being part of that. Clearly what happened to George Floyd was absolutely shocking. Nobody could have watched that video and felt anything other than absolute, desperate outrage and anger over what is going on there.
“But previous incidents of that kind have not sparked this kind of anger globally. For me, it’s not a coincidence this is happening at the same time that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting precisely those communities.
“It’s drawn such a sharp focus on the unfairness of the system that we, collectively, have allowed to grow up, and which curtails the lives of so many of our fellow citizens. We have to stop that, we have to remake society better than the society we had going into this crisis.”
A key part of the solution, argues Mr Reed, is an anti-poverty strategy, but for the past 10 years “we’ve had the opposite”.
“As a result of the Government’s decisions, more families and more children are living in poverty today than when it first came to power. We are now facing a recession or depression that will further deepen poverty but it’s not going to apply equally, it’s going to affect some communities more than others, and we know which communities it will be.
“We have to have a strategy that seeks to eliminate the root causes of poverty. Now we can see the inequalities of wealth and opportunity around our society, we need to tackle them.”
Local government has its own issues with diversity, and councillors should be “visibly representative” of the community that elects them, says Mr Reed – but he wants to go beyond that.
“I don’t think we should always be thinking about how we can empower politicians, I think we should be thinking about how we can empower people as well.
“If the Government’s idea of devolution is just shifting power from one tier of politicians to another, it’s not going to be enough. We need to be looking at how we genuinely and directly empower people in their communities to have a bigger say over the services that they use and the things that affect them where they live.”
Tapping into communities’ insights and experiences opens up new ideas and innovative ways of resolving the problems they face, that can be more cost-effective and provide better outcomes.
He cites the example of Camden Council’s ‘family group conferencing’ model for children’s services. Families with challenging needs invite influential people in their networks – faith or community leaders, or simply their friends – to meetings to discuss the interventions they need, with professionals advising and supporting.
“If the Government’s idea of devolution is just shifting power from one tier of politicians to another, it’s not going to be enough”
The interventions the families decide to adopt are more likely to tackle the real problems in their lives than the ones the professionals might have come up with without directly involving them. Families also feel they are in control and are therefore much more likely to accept the interventions rather than resist them, says Mr Reed.
“Every councillor or council leader reading this interview will have some of these examples for themselves. We need to take this agenda and put it right at the centre of a renewal of our politics.”
It’s a vision he hopes will figure in Labour’s next manifesto, albeit work on policy positions is at a very early stage with a General Election a long way off.
“The policy document for housing, communities, local government and transport is asking those very questions, about how should we tackle inequalities of power; who should be taking decisions; who should be involved; how can we make sure that vulnerable people get the support they need to have a voice in the decisions that affect them; what should the relationship between national and local government be; and what does a fair funding system look like – so local government isn’t always existing on the whim of whoever happens to be the Secretary of State at any given moment,” says Mr Reed.
Ministers need to deliver on their pledge to fund councils “to do whatever is necessary to get communities through this crisis”, he says, citing the LGA’s own warnings that local government needs another £6 billion on top of £3.2 billion of additional central funding already received to meet loss of income and additional costs arising from the pandemic.
Mr Reed is concerned that councils, “facing a funding gap of a fifth of their budgets”, are now having to consider frontline job losses and cuts to vital services to balance their budgets.
“That is not good news for communities, who will need to rely on the support their councils can offer them both to get the high streets back open, to get the local economy moving, and to keep vulnerable people safe and protected.”
Mr Reed is sceptical about the Government making any progress on its promised Devolution White Paper or on putting adult social care on a sustainable footing, despite the devastation wrought by the coronavirus on a care sector already in financial crisis.
“On the care situation, we have got an ageing population and we don’t have the resources to make sure older people are properly looked after,” he says.
“We do need to have a national conversation about how we identify the resources to make sure that all of us in our own old age and our parents and grandparents are properly looked after. The Government has not initiated that conversation in the past 10 years, they’ve just ignored it.”