Throughout the coronavirus pandemic councils across the country have worked hard to ensure that those most impacted by the crisis are able to access the support that they need – whether that be emergency food or supplies, accommodation for rough sleepers, or business rate holidays and grant funding.
Three months on, it is increasingly clear that those communities already struggling with the impacts of inequality are among those hardest hit. Only last week the Office for National Statistics raised concerns that people living in the poorest areas of England are twice as likely to die from COVID-19.
Councils have long been aware of the need to build economies that are inclusive and accessible. In light of recent events, and as our communities begin to consider the type of world they want to see after the pandemic, councils’ role as place-shapers has assumed an even greater importance. Now is the moment to re-build our communities, stabilise our local economies and ensure no one is left behind.
With the high risk of increased unemployment, the persistent blight of in-work poverty, long-standing skills gaps and the prospect of rough sleepers returning to the streets, it is clear that bold and innovative policy initiatives are the only sustainable way to create local economies that work for everyone.
Many councils have adopted local initiatives to bring about more inclusive local economies. What these look and feel like is dependent on the unique needs of each area, from urban cities and post-industrial towns to coastal areas and rural villages. Regardless of the geography of an area, in order to be successful, inclusive economic growth must be a core ambition that cuts across the whole council, it cannot be left to a single service or fringe initiative. What does this look like in practice?
Our research, led by IPPR North, has shown how councils can leverage their influence to bring about this change in three ways: as an employer; as commissioners and procurers of services; and with the considerable power they wield to convene and influence local players.
It could mean spending more on services and goods from organisations in their local area; providing apprenticeships for local people; linking hard-to-reach groups with employment opportunities; funding employment support programmes; or further improving public transport by creating or expanding cycling networks to enable people to travel in more affordable, environmentally-friendly ways.
But councils cannot shoulder this burden alone. Building an inclusive economy is a joint-enterprise, and businesses as well as local anchor institutions including universities and NHS Trusts can play a role by procuring locally, opening up employment opportunities to local people, and providing the living wage.
Most crucially, this all comes at a cost. The impact of the decade-long funding pressures on local government means that building inclusive economies will be all the more challenging to deliver. To lead a local and inclusive recovery, we must have the powers and funding to do so.
Sir Richard Leese is chair of the Local Government Association’s City Regions Board.