Building back better from the pandemic starts with community power

February 10, 2022  

A year on from our report about community responses to the first lockdown, some local authorities have made great progress at working with community groups but others still struggle to collaborate. Charlotte Morgan and Simon Kaye look at how to make community-led work more than just a crisis response.

“I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

It’s been one year since we published Shifting the Balance, our report about the community power movement that energised local responses to the first Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020.

The report also presented recommendations for local authorities on how to embed these new community powered practices for the long term. So, a year later – what progress has been made?

Communities coming together – what we found in our report last year

We’ve seen public services and communities come together before to help others during severe floods or heavy snowfalls, but never in such a widespread manner as we did in March 2020.

When the first Covid-19 lockdown was called, communities throughout 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 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 spring 2020 lockdown were those that enabled and supported the activities of community groups. 

They 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 to target help at people most in need.

One year later: progress in some areas, lack of collaboration in others

Fast-forward to 2022, and although the vaccination programme is allowing us to get back to some degree of pre-pandemic ‘normality’, a growing number of councils are choosing to reject a return to business as usual.

Instead, having reflected on what worked in the first lockdown, they are now embedding more community-led, inclusive and collaborative approaches into their operations.

Some, such as Monmouthshire Council, Essex County Council and Wigan Council, had started working closely with communities before 2020 and have continued to build on those relationships.

Others, such as the London Borough of Newham, Sheffield City Council and One Stockport movement, have cited the experience of the pandemic as the driving force behind new participatory and dialogue-based initiatives.

However, there are still sizable pockets of the country where public services are not working collaboratively with communities. For example, in the first lockdown, some mutual aid groups saw their efforts to respond to the pandemic curtailed by the indifference or excessively controlling tendencies of their local council.

Local Authorities have a ‘make or break’ role in community-led action

This picture in 2022 underlines that local public bodies have an influential ‘make or break’ role in the cause of community power. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, their actions can stifle the spirit and resolve of communities as much as nurture them.

Why does this matter? The true power of community-led action is vastly underappreciated if it is only regarded as a short-term crisis response.

Communities know their area more intimately than any public or emergency service and instinctively know what needs doing, who needs helping and which approaches will genuinely make a difference to people and places.

Evidence collected by New Local shows that community power:

  • Encourages prevention and early intervention approaches in public services.
  • Improves individual health and wellbeing.
  • Builds cohesion and resilience in communities.

Community-led action produced the most effective local responses to the first Covid-19 lockdown. Building back better from the pandemic has to begin with community power as its foundation.

2023 and beyond for community power and councils

So, where next? New Local is now embarking on a new project to explore how, in practice, councils can become more community-powered.

This project will be based on our ongoing learning from the members of our 70-strong network of local authorities, our growing number of one-to-one practice projects, and three years of research into community power.

We hope that this will be exactly the kind of resource to ensure that more and more people see the tangible benefits of community power – and not just during times of crisis.

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