This article forms part of the LGA's Re-thinking local think piece series.
Our lives have changed dramatically over the course of the crisis. Our daily experiences have been altered in ways unimaginable only a few months ago by restrictions and measures necessary to control the spread of the virus.
But lockdown has not been a level playing field for everyone. Deep cracks in society have come to the fore, characterised by health, wealth, work and housing privileges, which have made this period so much more challenging for some than others and which have shaped our emergency response.
In Wales, Welsh Government has provided national leadership whilst community leadership has been provided by local government and local partners. Both levels of government have worked very closely in partnership. Councils have dexterously acted with urgency in introducing brand new ways of working and service reform to make sure that no-one is left behind. Staff in all parts of the country have shown huge determination to help in their communities. Whether it has been shielding and food boxes, securing housing for homeless people, the vital role of our social care workforce, hubs for key workers, the distribution of over £730m in business grants to over 60,000 businesses, the building of field hospitals, the successful roll-out of the Test, Trace and Protect programme, or the return of schooling before the summer holidays, councils have been relied upon time and again to make things happen at very short notice.
Deep cracks in society have come to the fore, characterised by health, wealth, work and housing privileges, which have made this period so much more challenging for some.
It is clear councils’ local intelligence, along with their proven innovation, resilience and adaptability, has been fundamental to responding to the crisis. That community know-how will be every bit as integral as we start to rethink our local services.
And that work is already underway. Ambitious Welsh Government plans for recovery are being informed by a broad range of renowned international experts and are focused around public services – sustaining new ways of working and transformation into the future; economic justice – both in terms of the impact on the most vulnerable in society and of a sustainable, locally based economic recovery given the twin impacts of Brexit and COVID 19; and a green recovery – locking in some of the positive ecological and environmental impacts of this period.
Council leaders have already had a series of talks with Ministers to ensure that local government helps to steer the direction of travel, where they have highlighted several potential opportunities and priorities for recovery:
- Locking-in the transformation of organisational working and service delivery, the scope for increased used of digital, new more agile and multi-disciplinary ways of working with consequent impact on office usage, the environment and workforce well-being;
- Building on community resilience, co-production and the role of citizens - building on new behaviours, commitments and contribution of communities and volunteers;
- Opportunities to embed or expand modal shifts in transport, through active travel, public transport and alternative ways of working;
- Recognising the primacy of and reinvesting in sustainable social care given its interdependence from the NHS and ensuring councils have a clear role in reducing the fragility and fragmented nature of independent provision;
- Sustaining the rapid improvement and transformation of homelessness services and achieving the goal of ending homelessness in Wales;
- Rebuilding and reinvesting in modern local economies through local procurement frameworks, prudential borrowing for public sector construction, including strategic housing developments, modern modular methods of construction and boosting the construction sector. Rethinking the jobs and skills that will be needed in the future and the roles of local councils in an expanded and enhanced apprenticeship scheme;
- Investment in preventative health measures and the role of public health, including active travel and healthier lifestyles in terms of the food and drink offer and supply chain;
- Preserving and sustaining environmental improvements experienced during the lockdown, due to reduced emissions, footfall and traffic. Investing in renewable and low carbon energy projects and flood alleviation schemes, which will benefit the local economy and environment; and
- Promoting and sustaining the renewed political and public recognition and respect for public services and front-line workers, settling a lasting shared commitment to and mutual responsibility for community and public service outcomes.
Given the immediacy of the severe economic challenges facing Wales and its communities, leaders have called for an ambitious programme of investment in several local authority-led programmes which could help rebuild Wales’ communities and economy. These co-ordinated programmes would:
- help meet a range of existing economic, social and environmental policy priorities;
- create rapid demand for local contractors and their workforces, generating income and jobs in local economies;
- help Wales in working towards statutory decarbonisation targets; and
- increase resilience, making communities across the country, rural and urban, less susceptible to external shocks in future.
Councils have already shown they can be trusted to deliver at pace. The WLGA has therefore held exploratory discussions with Welsh Ministers for a mixture of supported local government borrowing, paid back over a number of years and income streams that would be generated (e.g. rental income or payments for energy) that could inject significant immediate investment into Wales’ communities and economies through local authority capital programmes. Authorities are currently developing a package of proposals to ‘build back better’ covering:
- Affordable housing
- An energy programme covering generation (facilities, smart grids and storage) and consumption (in buildings, vehicles)
- Social care and primary care infrastructure
- Continuation of the 21st century schools programme
- Circular Economy infrastructure for better resource management
- Better transport through well-maintained highways, more integrated public transport and enhanced provision for active travel
- Innovation, digital enhancement and connectivity
- Business / industrial property and support
- Natural and physical flood defences, sustainable drainage, green infrastructure and sustainable tourism
- Investment in human capital via skills training and apprenticeships.
These programmes would be mutually reinforcing, all enhancing the quality of life and well-being across all sections of the community and focusing investment in and through local providers and suppliers where possible. Crucially, many of these programmes are ‘shovel-ready’ and would have the double-benefit of addressing longstanding issues as well as pump-priming Wales’ economy.
This might seem like a bold shopping list. But over recent months, we’ve seen what can be possible when we put our minds to it; almost overnight we’ve achieved cleaner air, a surge in community engagement, modal shifts and brought homeless people off the streets.
It’s abundantly clear that papering over the exposed cracks of social inequality cannot be an option. We must all be ambitious in chasing after a fairer and more equal Wales that is guided by local need and local accountability.