Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network.
We live – as we’re constantly told – in turbulent times.
Even before the arrival of a new viral pandemic and months of self-induced economic coma, changes were clearly on the horizon. Politically polarised culture war, drastic and unpredicted shake-ups of the UK’s constitutional status quo, the slowly-boiling-frog feeling of technological progress, environmental degradation, collapsing faith in democratic institutions, and ever-growing, ever-more-complex demands on public services.
But this turbulence also creates a moment of radical possibility.
The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted a structurally different way of approaching the most serious challenges we face. The thousands of mutual aid groups that have emerged in the last few months – the subject of our new report at NLGN – reflect a general rise in neighbourliness, community cohesion, and attachment to place.
While this is an effect visible almost everywhere affected by the pandemic, there is evidence to suggest that Britain has experienced this effect in a more pronounced way than everywhere else. Perhaps this is because we are measuring from such a low starting-point. The UK is, by many measures, one of the most centralised countries in the world. This was never more visible than in the systematic failure of the centre to respond to the pandemic – with over-centralisation ruining our efforts to set up test-and-trace systems, create useful tracking apps, and work effectively with facilities and resources not under direct government control.
While the current government seems to be alive to the pressing need for modernisation and streamlining at the crowded centre of Whitehall, there had been very little interest in a meaningful devolution and decentralisation agenda which could genuinely ‘level-up’ regional economies and give people a real sense of ‘taking back control’.
Little interest, that is, until now. The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic may have just about served as the wake up call that the centre needs. The Prime Minister has called for new proposals to support and sustain the community response that we have seen as the country turns toward recovery.
There are lessons aplenty in our report on the new mutual aid groups, where thousands of people spontaneously responded to the crisis by supporting their shielding and vulnerable neighbours, sometimes by meeting essential needs for food and medicine, and at other times in a surprisingly sophisticated way that addressed welfare issues too. Our research revealed an extraordinary diversity of approaches and experiences. In many places mutual aid was the only thing that made the government’s ‘shielding’ policy at all workable.
Mutual aid groups show an appetite for self-governance and localism that many thought to be extinct in the UK. They represent a way for people to invest time in the places they live and the people they live near, and improve their lives independently of the state. Many of the groups we spoke to expressed a desire to sustain their newfound local cohesion and spirit of friendly collaboration after the end of the crisis.
Our research shows that the success of these groups often hinged on the special circumstances of the current emergency. This means that, for community action of this sort to continue, ways must be found to create space for the flourishing of flexible, autonomous, and citizen-driven activity at the neighbourhood level.
So how can this be done?
First – embrace the role of local government. In the best cases we observed, councils offered expertise, resources and spaces for mutual aid groups to thrive. They also stood out of the way and allowed these groups the freedom to respond quickly and on their own terms. We suggest that councils work to build up the skills, tools, and culture they need to help facilitate and empower community groups in the future. Of course, it should go without saying that councils will need to be properly resourced if they are to do this important work.
Second, and just as importantly, create the time for people to be better neighbours.
In many places the conditions for these groups’ strength was created by the free time of working-age people who were furloughed or otherwise found they had little work to do. We think it would be appropriate to incentivise employers to allow more free and flexible time for employees – perhaps specifically earmarked for community engagement – so they can spend that time on being good neighbours. Normalising a shorter and more flexible working week, introducing new bank holidays, and increasing statutory holiday time could all help, too.
We don’t long for permanent economic lockdown, of course, but the mutual aid phenomenon does demonstrate that many people will use their free time in extraordinarily productive and pro-social ways. As the economy fires up again, this free time is likely to evaporate – but the needs that the mutual aid groups are meeting will not fade nearly as fast.
Such measures would help begin the work of building up the resilience and fortitude of our communities, and even help replace dependence on top-down systems with meaningful localism and autonomy. We owe it to ourselves to find a very different starting-point before the next big challenge arrives.