Councils vs Covid: 3 Things We Learned From Local Gov’s Pandemic Response

July 16, 2020   By Charlotte Morgan, Senior Policy Researcher

Never before has the saying ‘think global, act local’ been more apt.

Over 15 weeks, I scrolled through councils’ Twitter accounts and news pages for case studies on innovative local responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and wrote them up for NLGN’s weekly #CouncilsRespond blog (the last in the series is here).

Below are three themes that local responses to COVID-19 during the March-June lockdown had in common, illustrated by some of the best council-led initiatives I found during the period. Some were ingenious, many were heart-warming, and a few were bizarrely brilliant – all showing local government at its most creative and compassionate best.

1. Councils were quick off the mark to facilitate community-led responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, and are now doing the same to aid recovery.

During lockdown, many councils created their own grant schemes to help existing volunteer and community groups remain financially stable and encourage community-led activities responding to the pandemic. Many, like Croydon and Tewkesbury, set up new schemes that asked eligible groups to apply for funding. Lambeth expanded its ‘Crowdfund Lambeth’ criteria to include local COVID-19 community projects; and Staffordshire and Kirklees increased ward budgets for councillors to pass funding on to community groups.

The grant schemes were an early indication that many councils were seeking to support and coordinate community responses to the pandemic rather than centralise and control them. Newark & Sherwood, for example, redeployed members of staff to assist volunteers in a community kitchen, and Stockport encouraging residents to volunteer to support local community organisations and charities.

New schemes suggest that councils will continue to facilitate community-led responses during the COVID-19 ‘recovery’ phase. Hounslow and St Albans are among the councils that will award funding to community projects promoting mental well-being and tackling social isolation linked to lockdown.

2. Strong partnership-working between councils and other local organisations created strong local responses to COVID-19.

Councils worked in partnership with many organisations in many different ways to respond to the pandemic. This included working with:

Other public services: Birmingham Children’s Partnership set up a new early help model and grant programmes to support children and families; Calderdale worked with West Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service to deliver food parcels quickly to residents in need; and Cambridgeshire and partners launched a mental health campaign to help residents cope with loneliness and access support.

Businesses and charities: Adur & Worthing and local businesses and charities supported people presenting as homeless; Sutton worked with ViaVan to adapt its demand-responsive bus technology to coordinate food parcel deliveries to residents more efficiently; Hounslow and Brentford FC Community Sports Trust delivered 600 free activity packs to children and young people across eight housing estates; and Southwark worked with O2 and Hubbub to encourage residents to donate old or unused smartphones to digitally excluded members of the community.

Other councils: Councils in Greater Manchester shared data to create an ‘early warning system’ for the region’s care homes; 15 councils in the Yorkshire and Humber region set up ‘Relationship Matters’ to help families experiencing relationship difficulties; and Lewisham and Birmingham launched a review on health inequalities within Black African and Caribbean communities.

And overseas organisations: Essex used its strong relationship with Jiangsu Province in China to negotiate the procurement of 200,000 protective face masks for Essex and neighbouring counties.

3. Councils’ responses to COVID-19 lockdown were brimming with creativity and kindness.

There was creativity and kindness at the heart of many responses to the pandemic. But there were special examples of councils going the extra mile to raise people’s spirits and bring joy to members of their community struggling with lockdown.

People of all ages were beneficiaries of councils’ acts of kindness. Stockport donated state-of-the-art tablets to every care home in the borough to enable isolated elderly residents to keep in touch with their loved ones, and Lancashire set up a campaign encouraging members of the public to send cards to local care homes. Bradford and Kirklees generously provided treat bags to support young care leavers to cope with loneliness and isolation in lockdown.

Councils also organised spectacular online events, classes and competitions to help residents stave off lockdown boredom. These included Wigan’s ‘Our Town’s Got Talent’ and Wandsworth Arts Fringe 2020. Doncaster kept everyone amused (and informed) by explaining the Government’s COVID-19 guidance clearly and humorously on Twitter.

And last, but most certainly not least, Stockport’s response to COVID-19 was boosted by none other than Spiderman!

One final thought:

Councils used their networks and local knowledge to swiftly develop effective responses to the pandemic, targeting support at those who needed it most and working in genuine partnership with public services, businesses, voluntary organisations and communities.

Just imagine how joined-up and person-centred public services could be if councils had the autonomy, powers and resources to nurture this kind of approach in ‘normal’ times.

We’d love to hear how your council is continuing to protect, inform and support residents as we try to recover from Covid, and reimagine public services. Get in touch with cmorgan@newlocal.org.uk to share your stories.

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