Mark Pengelly is a community activist and Conservative campaigner. Ayesha Azad is Deputy Leader of Woking Borough Council.
In the closing chapters of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, the narrator walks bleary eyed through the streets of London. He sees people going about their business amid the bombed-out streets, but a subtle change had taken place. “Their faces seemed all with one of two expressions – a leaping exultation and energy or a grim resolution.”
Like Wells’ narrator, the country is now tentatively stepping out into the light, with people being allowed outdoors, to meet with others from up to six households, and to visit car showrooms and outdoor markets in England since June 1st.
This won’t be an easy process. The last few months have been truly traumatic for the whole UK, particularly those whose friends and families have been directly affected by the coronavirus outbreak. And while the public health crisis appears to be gradually easing, the economic and social ruin is just beginning.
It’s hard to think of positive things that can issue from a disaster like the one we are living through, but we can think of two things we hope will endure from this crisis.
One is an increased use of technology. It was encouraging to see pictures of the UK’s first virtual cabinet meeting spread across the newspapers at the end of March. Since then it has been just as pleasing to see both Westminster and local government continuing their activities remotely.
Teleconferencing and videoconferencing have been widely used among businesses for decades, but local and central government is often all about “showing up” – sometimes, to an excessive degree.
Woking Borough Council is regularly holding Zoom meetings to ensure statutory decisions are being made and appropriate scrutiny is taking place. Technology is very much allowing the democratic process to take place.
Some people have expressed valid concerns about the security of such tools, which certainly should be addressed. Others will argue in-person meetings offer higher quality communication, which is true. But neither should cause us to ignore the flexibility technology affords. Whether in local government, parliamentary committees, or in constituency Conservative associations, there’s a strong case for making greater use of these tools to allow wider participation and more transparent decision-making.
The second trend that will endure from this crisis is even more important and has been propelled, somewhat ironically, by the first.
Modern technology has enabled the heavy flow of information between countries and continents, but in these dark times, it has arguably proven more effective at keeping us in touch with our dearest relatives and closest neighbours.
Across the land, people have discovered with fresh eyes the communities in which they live. Councils like Woking have sprung into action to house the homeless in suitable accommodation, feed the hungry with meals on wheels, and assist vulnerable residents, while making sure vital community services are not impeded. The council is also working with mental health charity Mind to develop staff expertise in mental health so they can recognize, understand, and respond to the wider wellbeing needs of residents.
Local authorities such as ours have helped extend more than £13 million of coronavirus-related business support to local businesses to date. Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, has called local councils “the unsung heroes” of the crisis.
At the same time, ordinary people have sacrificed their spare time to help others in abundance. We’ve seen groups of volunteers across our borough supply groceries or give other assistance to those who are vulnerable or socially isolating. The local mosque has started a coronavirus self-isolation support project, offering food and other help to all people affected by the crisis. Local businesses and partnerships have been distributing food and providing space, and even staff, to assist the council in helping residents.
Local charities are finding new ways of connecting with clients and offering them support. Grateful residents and business have given free boxes of gifts as a way of thanking volunteers and key workers. Regular claps for the NHS express a deep and justified sense of gratitude at the heroism of our doctors, nurses and other key workers across various fields.
In these challenging times, the community here in Woking is rallying around. Through its #WeAreWoking campaign and the local weekly newspaper – now delivered free to all households – the council is shining a spotlight on the positive things happening around the borough, showing how people are making the best of things and keeping them updated on important local news.
When the 75th anniversary of VE Day arrived on May 8, it was celebrated on our socially distanced streets amid an almost wartime spirit of cohesion. In Woking and the country at large, people feel more closely connected to their neighbourhoods, towns, cities and nations than ever before. Contrary to rumors of their demise, Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” are alive and well.
Whether this is Wells’ “leaping exultation” or “grim resolution”, the renewed sense of belonging is a change that Conservatives should welcome.