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Time for a national conversation on resilience
Matt Leach, Chief Executive - Big Local, and Adam Lent, Director - NLGN , 24 July, 2020

Kicking off a new conversation about Resilient Britain, chief executive of Local Trust, Matt Leach, and director of NLGN, Adam Lent, set out their plan to bring together a network of people and organisations to design and deliver plans to increase local and national resilience.

The opening decades of this century have been bookended and bisected by three deep systemic shocks. The attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the financial crash of 2008, and the Covid pandemic of 2020.

The first two crises highlighted the vulnerability of what had previously been assumed to be stable and secure developed economies to unexpected events, prompting both immediate and long-term responses. A war on Iraq followed by a longer “war on terror”; and a staggeringly large publicly funded bail out of the banking sector followed by (in this country) a decade of austerity to “balance the books”.

A strong case can be made that we failed in both our responses. Two decades and several Middle-Eastern wars later have not ended terrorism. Ten years after the crash, our economy remains both unbalanced and vulnerable to external shock.

But, arguably, a much bigger failure has been our collective lack of willingness to engage with the wider lessons and challenges of 2001 and 2008. Whilst we reacted to each crisis in its own terms, we failed both times to consider what we might need to do as a nation to prepare better for the next shock event. We stress tested the banks, but we failed to look beyond the financial sector for vulnerabilities in our economy and our social and political settlements.

This time it needs to be different. As a society, we are entering a period that seems set to be defined by further crises and upheaval. The world is now even less predictable and more volatile than it was back at the start of the century.

As we emerge from this first phase of the Covid crisis, we need to move from reactive crisis management and start to rebuild on the basis of broad-based, designed-in resilience. Rather than asking “how do we stop this particular crisis happening again?” we need to challenge ourselves to ensure that when the next crisis happens, we are better able to manage and respond to it, whatever its nature.

This is why the two organisations we lead, Local Trust and New Local Government Network, have come together to understand what a truly Resilient Britain might look like. Our aim is to bring together a network of people and organisations who not only have deep expertise about resilience in the face of crisis, but will also play a big part in designing and delivering plans to increase the resilience of our communities, institutions and nation as a whole.

We are already drawing in participants from sectors as diverse as energy, environment, community, housing, retail and health. We want to use that combined insight to produce blogs, articles and papers that will kickstart a national debate about the fundamental importance of resilience across our private, public and voluntary sectors. And because this is very far from a simple topic, we would hope it would lead onto more detailed work that goes beyond thinking and starts to drive real world action.

Our conversation will doubtless initially be shaped by Covid, given how much there is to learn from the last few months’ experience. It has taught us, in particular, that whilst the ability to respond to immediate threat is vital, it is very far from the whole story. Resilience must be hard-wired into mind-set of our society, institutions and economy.

There are many perspectives that need to be brought to the table. But from our own point of view we start from a place of concern at the growing evidence of the way Covid has further weakened already disadvantaged communities. Recent evidence shared with the new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Left Behind Neighbourhoods shows how, during lockdown, Left Behind Areas saw lower levels of voluntary community action and received much less grant funding to help them cope with the crisis. That further polarisation of opportunity and resource is deeply worrying if our goal is to address inequality alongside building a resilient future.

But we have also seen that, where there are well-connected, highly motivated local communities and volunteers, working in close collaboration with councils, business and other public agencies at the local level, great things can be achieved. Indeed, that broad-based, nation-wide response has been one of the brightest, most compelling stories of the pandemic to date. So, this project will inevitably look at weaknesses that must be addressed, but also at the positive lessons emerging from the last four months.

We are now heading into a decade that will be characterised not just by the aftershock of Covid, but also by rising global temperatures and extreme weather, with increasingly unstable geo-politics and a looming global depression. ‘Be prepared for the worst’ rather than ‘strive for the best’ is likely to be one of the defining policy goals of the first half of the twenty-first century. Work to define what that might look like – to ensure we are able to continue to prosper through difficult times – could not be more timely or important.

To find out more about Resilient Britain, contact the project’s lead researcher, Luca Tiratelli at ltiratelli@nlgn.org.uk.