The science fiction writer William Gibson famously said that the future is already here, it’s just poorly distributed. I think he meant that the technologies, habits and trends that will define the next phase of our development are somewhere around us already; we just don’t know which of them are important yet.
Seen in this light, the COVID-19 crisis looks like an accelerant. Trends that were already apparent have dramatically sped up, from China’s growing global leadership role to the rapid adoption of digital technology. Redbridge LBC first introduced Microsoft Teams in 2017, but it was barely used until a month ago. Today, it is ubiquitous and likely to remain so, which makes large-scale remote working a real possibility for the first time. The implications could be profound for everything from office space to social capital.
Many councils are beginning to think about life after the initial spike of C-19 cases. We know we probably face a long period of some form of restriction on people’s freedom of movement – perhaps policed by councils –while we wait for a vaccine.
We know the world faces a deep recession which will probably result in a long-lasting tail of unemployment. But we also know that we are in a strong position to grasp new technological and social opportunities, working with communities which have often responded magnificently.
The economy is an obvious place to begin a horizon scan. High streets, with their typical mix of small businesses and restaurants, will be hit badly by COVID.
The recession may well accelerate the decline of the retail sector and pose tough questions about what should replace it. Councils will be well-placed to acquire cheap property in a recession and could use this to reshape their high streets, but to what end? It seems likely that the state will need to be heavily involved in helping the economy recover, and councils need to be ready to seize the opportunities of any economic stimulus package.
The health and wellbeing of our residents will be another critical consideration. Early reports from cities like Wuhan suggests that easing lockdown does not, on its own, bring residents back to normality. Citizens still face restrictions, business is sluggish and no one has a lot of confidence in the future.
Like their Chinese counterparts, many UK citizens will have lost family or friends to the virus, or be suffering from the challenges of being locked up in overcrowded homes, sometimes with abusive or neglectful relatives.
Councils need to ensure that local people get the mental support and physical exercise they need to start re-establishing their lives.
The good news might be that COVID-19 – in common with many major crises – has generated a powerful sense of egalitarian togetherness as communities pull together to support the vulnerable.
Our council for voluntary service in Redbridge placed what would normally be a year’s worth of volunteers in a fortnight. We need to sustain this spirit during the crisis, emphasising the inspiring role of social action over the council’s own work and fostering a sense of togetherness and, critically, fairness.
That said, this a virus that does appear to discriminate, hitting the poor and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities hardest. The key question is whether we can create a lasting legacy of social action that benefits all of our communities.
The rapid adoption of new technology is another bright point. Many councils are finally starting to make a reality of the idea of digital-first, and residents seem more than ready to make the shift online in the current climate. Once the crisis passes, the debate we need to have is where face-to-face and phone contact still adds the most value.
Our new approaches to shielding the most vulnerable residents, mixing proactive phone calls and council services with voluntary sector support, might point the way to a very different approach to adult care.
Local government will emerge from this crisis looking very different – digital, care-focused, economically active in new ways and with an exhausted and perhaps traumatised workforce. The vast majority of councils will, of course, also be bankrupt. It seems hard to imagine that business rates can survive the crisis in their current form.
Anything resembling a new normal probably remains years away. Only the oldest among our population have even the dimmest of memories of the last time we faced a challenge of this magnitude. But as the country emerged from World War Two, exhausted and bankrupt, it also built an NHS and a progressive welfare system. Good futures are available, for those who prepare for them
Simon Parker is director of strategy at Redbridge LBC