Economic confidence might be slumping, but community power is on the rise
Jessica Studdert, Deputy Director, NLGN, 28 May, 2020

Throughout the pandemic central government has worked against the grain of local energy, but hope can be found in our communities and councils, writes Jessica Studdert.

Councils’ confidence in the economy has fallen dramatically, according to the latest findings of NLGN’s Leadership Index. Faith in the local business environment has dropped by a third since our last quarterly survey of leaders and chief execs. So far, in the context of an unprecedented economic shutdown, so predictable.

But perhaps more surprisingly, our survey results weren’t all bad news. Confidence in community trust and cohesion has risen to its highest since the index began back in April 2018, topping 70 out of 100. What’s more, 95% of respondents said the role of community groups in responding to the pandemic was significant or very significant. This is a clear endorsement of community power at the heart of our response, and it suggests solid foundations for our collective desire to ‘build back better’ in the future.

People and businesses have been tested to their limits during the crisis and communities have responded by pulling together. As councils have reoriented their support to respond to emerging needs, many are realising they can have the biggest impact by working with the grain of existing community energy. Often this has meant recognising the groundswell of motivated neighbours and groups, and quickly establishing networks based on local intelligence. Sometimes those working in councils have understood that they can support this activity best by stepping back and facilitating it, as opposed to a traditional response which would be to take control more directly. The challenge will be how to capture the best of these new ways of working and retain them into a new future.

Unfortunately, the government hasn’t yet got the memo about the power of a local response. Our survey also revealed significant dissatisfaction with government support to councils. When asked to name their top two priorities for what they needed from the government, over three quarters (77%) of leaders and chief execs called for more funding and nearly half (43%) said they needed more PPE. This reflects an ongoing disconnect between central and local government that has characterised the crisis response and is reflective of the deeper power imbalance enshrined in our top-heavy system of governance.

At every juncture in its crisis response, the government seems to have worked against the grain of local energy rather than with it. Whether it’s the backtracking over early funding promises, faith in contact tracing being placed in an app rather than the hands of public health directors, or a blanket national approach to easing lockdown despite local concerns and lack of data sharing, the actions of those at the centre have persistently ignored local realities and potential.

There are signs that the tide is turning against this overweening concentration of power and initiative in SW1. Persistent government missteps are contributing to a growing sense of a clunky and out of touch Whitehall machine – a perception now personified in the Cummings saga catalysing an enormous breakdown of trust. Into this void of clear direction at the top, councils are taking decisions about safety in their areas themselves – over schools reopening, or public health teams now taking more responsibility for contact tracing. This is demonstrating that where central is failing, local government is actively protecting residents and working in their interests, and people are seeing up close the dedication of council key workers and active community support networks.

So while grave concerns over the health of our economy are likely to persist, we can have faith that communities are proving that resilience comes from the ground up. A new partnership of equals between local government and communities themselves, with trust at its core, can ensure we really build back better.

This article was originally published in LGC.


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