The whole language surrounding current public policy fails to go far enough to articulate the sheer magnitude of change that has been thrust upon us in the past fortnight. ‘Unprecedented’, ‘extraordinary’… they no longer reflect the impact on the life of every single person in the UK, or indeed across the globe.
Local government is at the very forefront of this crisis. From maintaining elderly care, to new measures to support the vulnerable. From closing playgrounds, to enforcing shop, restaurant, bar and pub closures. From emergency planning to volunteer co-ordination. From rehousing rough sleepers to – tragically – crematorium and burial services. The list is endless, with far more frontline heroes and back-office superstars who will never get the recognition they deserve.
Front and centre in local government’s response are public health and communications – both of which have taken a huge hit during the decade of austerity. Now is not the time for recriminations, as all efforts need to focus squarely on the job in hand, but the false economy of cuts has hollowed out capacity in local government. It makes the efforts being made now all the more exceptional.
Comms teams in particular have been cut to the core, seen as a ‘nice to have’ luxury in a world where shoring up the social care budgets was the number one priority. Now we need so much more than just a social media account to get the message across to everyone: Stay at Home.
Ironically, local government now faces what it once feared. It will now be down to the bare bones of its services. The statutory minimum with just one clear priority – the coronavirus crisis.
With equal irony, some of the past problems and wicked issues of local government are melting into insignificance with the scale of the challenge ahead.
Suddenly, it is possible to get all the rough sleepers off the streets. The sector is capable of finding care for people in need of support as they vacate their hospital beds. There are people available to support the vulnerable, work with local businesses, and help the local community.
Local authorities are rising to the challenge with a range of short-term fixes that will carry the country through the crisis – and I am immensely proud of the sector for the mammoth effort that is being made. The longer-term may bring its own issues – but perhaps this will help central government understand the true value of local government.