The lockdown strikes back, but local lessons give hope

January 13, 2021  

Covid-19 has brought unimaginable hardship to local communites, but it has also sparked a shift in mindset, culture and practice that helped many get through the pandemic and will provide valuable lessons for how councils and communities combine to genuinely build back better.

And so 2021 began in the way that no-one wanted but many had predicted: England and Scotland followed Northern Ireland and Wales into another national COVID-19 lockdown. But this time our main source of frustration is also our main source of resilience: we’ve been through this before.

Of course, this lockdown is not quite the same as the one that took place in March and April. We are contending with a significantly more transmissible variant of the coronavirus, and there are more COVID-19 patients in hospital now than in April’s peak. Responding to a public health emergency for ten months and counting has plunged the economy into crisis and stretched public and third sector services, in some cases already to breaking point. Frontline workers and the general public are exhausted, with morale and adherence to lockdown restrictions considerably lower in autumn than during the ‘blitz spirit’ days of spring 2020.

It may feel difficult to summon optimism in our current predicament, but it is worth comparing today with those terrifying uncharted waters of March, where no-one really knew anything about the virus and lockdowns. Now, a COVID-19 vaccination programme is underway and we have the benefit of experience to draw on. Connections, relationships and networks built in the first and subsequent lockdowns, as well as lessons learned from what worked and did not work, now stand ready to  drive local responses to the new lockdown.

the places that responded most effectively to the first wave were the ones where public services enabled and supported, rather than sought to control or limit, the activities of community groups.

Understanding the practices and relationships that fuelled successful local responses to the first lockdown, and assessing how they can be retained beyond the pandemic, are the twin purposes of New Local’s next report, Shifting the Balance. In autumn, we held online workshops and interviews with local public services, voluntary and community organisations across England, Scotland and Wales to ask what those successful practices and relationships entailed.

One of our key findings held true across all three nations: the places that responded most effectively to the first wave were the ones where public services enabled and supported, rather than sought to control or limit, the activities of community groups.

In these places, public services abandoned siloed and bureaucratic mindsets, fast-tracked funding to community groups, and worked in genuine partnership with local organisations and communities to pool together resources, skills and networks and help people most in need. We found evidence of entirely new approaches – hubs where the council worked brilliantly with VCSE to deliver what was needed at the hyper-local level, the creation of new roles with an explicit remit to facilitate community groups, and the harnessing of data and digital technologies.

Many public servants… highlighted that the first lockdown has helped their organisation rediscover the importance of listening to, learning from and trusting their local communities.

The impact of these approaches is such that many areas are now looking to embed more community-led, inclusive and collaborative approaches into public services for the long term. Our report will feature in-depth case studies on how places such as Kingston-upon-Thames, Monmouthshire and North Ayrshire are striving to achieve this.

This willingness to learn from and carry forward what worked in the first lockdown is particularly crucial. Many of the public servants who came to our research workshops highlighted that the first lockdown has helped their organisation rediscover the importance of listening to, learning from and trusting their local communities. This has led to the emergence of a new culture of openness and engagement.

Community-led responses helped many people and places get through the first wave of Covid-19. And the way our councils and communities have come together to face the pandemic gives us hope, however long the road to recovery may be.

The Shifting the Balance research is funded and supported by Barrow Cadbury Trust, Carnegie Trust UK and Power to Change. The final report will be published at the end of January.

To get a copy of the report sent straight to your inbox, sign up to our mailing list.

For more information, please get in touch with Charlotte or Simon.