The pandemic presented all of us with our toughest ever challenge in local government. Life-saving services, such as shielding and community support for vulnerable residents have been at the forefront, while communities and voluntary sector groups have become central to daily life for many.
Despite the losses we have suffered to COVID-19 – and I include my own family in that group as well as more than 200 other bereaved families in Merton – it also presented a new level of community spirit, co-operation and sense of place.
Now, as we learn to live with the virus and those vital services become embedded into our authorities, councils face perhaps their biggest challenge of all – understanding what sort of local places our residents want in a post-pandemic Britain.
After two years of working at home, local lifestyles and shopping locally, what do people really want to keep longer-term?
Merton has not been the only council turning its attention to this question; but as one that started future planning relatively early in June, while we were still facing another lockdown, I thought some of the key themes would be relevant to the emerging debate.
Our conversation with residents lasted three months. It combined the traditional resident survey on service quality perception, but added two future-facing elements – an open-source website to comment on the pandemic impacts and future priorities, and a series of resident and business focus groups.
The resulting 10,000 engagements and 4,000 comments have given us a view of what people really think the future looks like locally – and not just now, but for the next decade.
Some trends were expected after almost two years at home. After watching out for each other for so long, there is a strong sense of community, perhaps inspired by the council’s emphasis on working with our partners to keep everyone safe.
People value local parks and spaces far more, have a far higher perception of day-to-day local matters such as clean streets, littering and local transport, and in general have an ambition for clean air – many by using their cars less.
In hearing what communities think of the longer-term, we have started to fundamentally change our priorities in some areas of our work.
One area is the local economy and place-shaping. Our residents understand its value and they demand improvements in ‘place’ from us. Many have traditionally seen the economy as a national issue. Their focus has often been at least partially driven by local core services. That has changed for us – core services remain one of our top two priorities (clean streets), but the other top priority now is the local economy and ensuring our high streets are not just shopping centres, but places to spend more time. People want more local opportunities, too.
Another shift in trends was around communities – partnership and voluntary relations has long been one of Merton’s success stories. But residents now really value the outcomes they deliver.
For example, the return of AFC Wimbledon after a fairytale rise was intended as the sports story of the year. With football on hold, supporters looking for some other way of helping their community diversified into the Dons Local Action Group, which has become one of the most successful volunteer bodies in the borough, providing hundreds of food parcels every day.
As the club returned to competition, the charity arm continued its work, for instance, by providing much of the food at the food bank I run each week in one of the borough’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Community identity was one of the biggest COVID-19 impacts our responses showed, and also one of the top two things that make the area special.
Our overall message was then wrapped up by the expected priority of parks and open spaces – which is now seen as a key part of shaping the future place, rather than just a high-value local service.
All this represents a genuine shift, and we will soon present a very different looking corporate vision for the next decade. But as we start to think about a different borough plan post-COVID, it could create a whole new challenge in our conversation with Government.
Mark Allison is the leader of Merton LBC
Case study: Taking the reins in a perfect storm
Chief executive officer Hannah Doody took over mid-pandemic, having led the community and housing directorate during the first outbreak and children’s schools and families directorate through the second phase. She explains her view on the challenges and opportunities ahead
Many of us will have run place-shaping engagement programmes like this. But on a local level, the timing of Your Merton has given validation to some critical perceptions – and raised some important questions.
It confirmed what most of us believe – that resident habits around their local high streets, open spaces and leisure time will stay local for at least the medium-term. It has also had an impact on residents’ appreciation of the role the council plays. But it also shows the scale of the challenge ahead. As we plan for the future, the conversation with Government will be more important than ever. The financial pressures that have dominated the last decade haven’t gone away.
One of the questions is: how do we build that conversation while generating the investment to meet resident expectations?
These are big challenges. As usual, local government will find solutions. But as usual, it won’t be without difficult decisions and change.
Hannah Doody is chief executive officer of Merton LBC