Cllr Toby Savage is the Leader of South Gloucestershire Council.
Danny Kruger MP wrote, earlier in this crisis, about ‘real conservatism’ and the role of communities in responding to coronavirus. As Conservative leader of South Gloucestershire Council, and near neighbour to his Wiltshire constituency, I have, over the last few months, seen this philosophy in practice like never before.
In South Gloucestershire, we have long understood the power of community. The neighbourhood is the most organic unit around which people organise and come together. Yes, we’re individuals, but we make sense of the world through the communities and places we live in. As council leader, I see my role as being to support, nourish, and make space for this community spirit to flourish.
As the coronavirus tore through our country, we turned our focus as a local authority to responding to the clinical, social, and economic challenges it set in motion. Standing alongside us were our communities and community organisations. Mutual aid groups have sprung up in different postcodes across the authority and our well-established voluntary and community organisations have provided crisis support, continuity of existing services, and a vital layer of infrastructure to support these new groups.
We have long-term strategic commissioning arrangements with local voluntary organisations like Southern Brooks Community Partnership and South Gloucestershire CVS. Their networks and connections have been mobilised nimbly and effectively to support communities at a time of crisis. As the lockdown was announced, we pulled together these organisations and senior officials from a range of key council departments, like public health, to coordinate our response, meeting twice weekly at the peak of the crisis. They mobilised partnerships to deliver food and prescriptions via our community transport providers; Southern Brooks quickly established a seven day a week support phone line.
At times, this has caused challenges. Citizens want to know what the local authority is doing to tackle the crisis and many want to see us as a visible presence. Of course, this is part of our role. But I believe we can have a more effective impact by stepping back at the right time and supporting the community to take the lead. This will be a challenge for Conservative council leaders everywhere, but one we should lean into. There is power in every community. Our role is to unlock it – and we need to find a way to be clear in communicating that this the right way to play our leadership role in our places.
In the context of coronavirus, this has meant supporting our existing community organisations to do the fantastic work they do – providing funding and strategic coordination. It has meant trusting local people to know what their communities need and not being overly prescriptive in the conditions we attach to funding. It has meant corralling other players in the local system – most notably local colleagues in the NHS and health providers – to buy into this way of working.
Last week, Locality published new research looking at the role of community organisations in the response to coronavirus and how they can be supported to play a central role in the recovery. As one of the Keep it Local councils, we are looking to recovery with this question in mind. There are things we can do. This could involve building on the stronger links we have created with health colleagues over the crisis. Practically, we may explore joint commissioning opportunities that harness the power in our communities.
There are also measures that central government can take as we look to recovery. As Kruger highlighted, recognition from Rishi Sunak and the Treasury of the importance of community is a big step.
One of our greatest strengths as a country is our civil society – those small charities in our villages, our market towns, in pockets of our cities: the unsung heroes looking after the vulnerable and holding together our social fabric.
Andy Haldane made a similar point in a recent piece for the FT, estimating the value generated by the UK voluntary and community sector to be more than £200bn or ten per cent of GNP. So, as we look to recovery, the Government should consider how to actively bolster these organisations. The charities package of support was a welcome announcement and will tide over many of our local organisations for a few months, but not indefinitely.
So, as Boris Johnson and Sunak look to the future, we should be asking how to hardwire local communites into the government’s recovery strategy. Will communities be put in charge of local economic development funding? Will the devolution white paper involve genuine onward devolution so councils and communities can continue to play a vital role in their places, beyond the crisis? These are the questions I will be asking as we look to a future of real conservatism rooted in local places.