How councils and communities ‘shifted the balance’ during Covid

January 27, 2021  

Together, councils and communities have done extraordinary things during Covid-19. Our Shifting the Balance research explores how practices, cultures and attitudes changed – and how to keep hold of some of the advances for the future.

2020 was an extraordinarily difficult year. It was also the year that proved community power is possible at scale.

We have seen public services and communities come together before to help others during severe floods or heavy snows, but never in such a widespread manner – across the entire country.  

Supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust, Carnegie UK Trust and Power to Change, our new research report, Shifting the Balance: Local adaptation, innovation and collaboration during the pandemic and beyond, tells the story of how places in England, Scotland and Wales responded to the first COVID-19 lockdown.

In the report, we identify and analyse the qualities, practices and partnerships that characterised the most effective local responses. We also set out recommendations for how national government and local public services, third sector bodies and communities themselves can sustain these positive and effective community-powered approaches for the longer term. 

Key Findings 

Councils that responded most effectively to the first lockdown were those that enabled and supported, rather than sought to control or limit, the activities of community groups.

When the first lockdown was called, communities the length and breadth of the UK answered volunteering appeals from the third sector or organised themselves into informal mutual aid groups. They checked on their neighbours, set up community-led food hubs, delivered essential items to the doors of vulnerable and self-isolating households, and were responsible for many more proactive acts of kindness that made an extremely challenging time easier for people to bear. Councils that responded most effectively to the first lockdown were those that enabled and supported, rather than sought to control or limit, the activities of community groups. 

Our report identified three types of ‘balance-shifting’ practices – ones where councils decisively shifted the balance of power away from public institutions and towards community groups during lockdown. These practices were particularly prevalent among ‘successful’ local responses. 

Adaptations saw councils respond to the urgency of the crisis by forming deeper partnerships with the third sector and community groups, speeding up bureaucratic processes, and breaking down organisational siloes. In Kingston upon Thames, for example, non-hierarchical and dynamic new teams and working groups came together in an organic way to solve problems. New and junior staff and frontline professionals found new opportunities to pitch their ideas to senior leaders in the organisation.  

Innovations saw councils make better use of digital technology to build bridges between public services and communities and promote new ways of solving problems. In Monmouthshire, for example, the council played a facilitative role to help communities work with each other in neighbourhood networks and assist them with any difficulties they encountered. As lockdown restrictions were steadily lifted, the council supported communities to lead efforts encouraging visitors to return safely to local town centres. 

Collaborations saw teams comprising individuals from a range of local organisations and backgrounds increasingly assembled on place-based terms or based on participants’ ability to contribute. Departmental siloes and hierarchical mindsets within councils dissolved to make way for this whole-systems approach. In North Ayrshire, for example, six dedicated community hubs were established in public-facing facilities within each of the area’s six sub-localities. Within these, a small team of dedicated staff coordinated the local response and connected local people with what they needed through a blend of council provision and effort from neighbourhood volunteers. 

Comparing England, Scotland and Wales 

Welsh and Scottish communities and councils were in some cases better positioned to make the needed changes because of the incentives established at the national level.

Our findings were informed by interviews and three workshops attended by public and third sector representatives from England, Scotland and Wales respectively (with a fourth workshop bringing the three nations together).  

In Scotland, the Futures Forum, Community Planning Partnerships, and various other national frameworks place a distinct emphasis on long-term approaches beyond short term responsiveness and the demands of electoral cycles. Similarly, in Wales, both the Social Services and Well-being Act and the Well-being of Future Generations Act – which created the totally unique role of a dedicated future generations commissioner – establish a set of incentives for long-term thinking, community participation, and sustainable practices. There is no comparable national framework, charter, or law for England.  

Video: Pembrokeshire County Council’s Neil Prior

While England must learn from the examples set in Scotland and Wales, all three nations exhibit long-term planning and community-led resilience in a patchy and inconsistent way that is strongly contingent on the dedication of local communities and leaders. But, when the pandemic crisis forced the adoption and acceleration of different approaches, Welsh and Scottish communities and councils were in some cases better positioned to make the needed changes because of the incentives established at the national level. In future, they may also be able to sustain the new practices and relationships more effectively too. 

Recommendations and next steps 

Our recommendations ask national governments, local government, other local bodies and communities to commit to decisively shifting the balance toward more community power in public services. This should involve: place-based exercises to map and embed the effective community-led approaches that emerged in lockdown; tackling digital inequalities as a priority; and passing a Community Power Act for England. 

By learning lessons from the extraordinary adaptations and achievements that took place during the pandemic, we may yet realise that a different, more community-led approach to public services really is possible – one that can help us on the long road to recovery from the pandemic and continue to improve people’s lives in future.  

  • Read the executive summary of Shifting the Balance and download the full report here.
  • Watch a video from Pembrokeshire’s Neil Prior – on how the pandemic deepened his relationship with the local community.

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