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COVID-19: “We are looking for any opportunities we can to support what might be a bounce back and recovery”

 

Local government workers are a resilient bunch, routinely dealing with emergencies with varying degrees of severity and surprise.

Flooding and severe weather have become a new normal in recent months, and in Wakefield we also dealt with a huge city centre fire earlier this year, and an apparent arson attack on one of our sports centres.

But never before have we faced a crisis on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic, and with a set of ramifications that seemingly have no end in terms of the impact they have on residents, communities, the public, private and voluntary sector, and on government, being forced daily into new unchartered territory and decision-making.

What started in February and March as clinical and public health forward planning has morphed into something affecting service provision, business, charitable and community behaviour, literally in a matter of days. We have all made painful decisions on isolating where we would prefer contact, on service closures, and on dampening consumer demand in local economies. Major restrictions on public movement have been confirmed. It is a truly cross-cutting emergency.

That we are in this together has really rung true over the last couple of weeks or so across our sector. While we are all taking radical measures on workplace social distancing, and finally proving home and remote working is possible, those of us in our emergency command structures have seen ourselves and thousands of colleagues working literally 24/7, against the odds, and often in what are now regarded as dangerous situations. Virus-related absences across our workforces and our partners are rising.

But alongside this we have also all seen a tremendous community response, and no end of willingness to strengthen this, from our voluntary sectors, community groups, our MPs and staff on the ground, and even from a deluge of good neighbours simply offering their time. Our Wakefield Together initiative, and a network of new community hubs supporting the most vulnerable and arranging food distribution, is one of many shining examples nationally.

We are all looking for any opportunities we can to support what might be a bounce back and recovery in the autumn and early next year: a V-shaped economic recovery with a spike in consumer demand; highways schemes that can be expedited while the roads are quieter; planning events programmes that will surely see huge demand when social distancing rules are relaxed; helping businesses and the self-employed navigate the new schemes for cashflow and income support. And, in the meantime, helping the voluntary sector thrive and survive what is also for it a hugely challenging period.

Like everyone we are finding it hard to think about life on the other side of this for local economies. But it is important to think now about the period when the crisis has eased. Tackling retail blight and the need to fundamentally re-think town centres, already pressing, has been given added urgency by the crisis. Volunteering and the praise for public services provides a new platform for council and voluntary sector community engagement.

Self-isolation and social distancing, concepts we now know too well, will have lasting consequences for community mental health, all requiring new and imaginative support in our communities and our workforces. And business will need lasting support – not just through the current cashflow crisis, but to support sustaining consumer demand and continuing to modernise and adapt to the post-coronavirus world.

There is a sense that we can and will get through this. ‘Councils can’, as the LGA slogan reminds us regularly, and our creativity and adaptability are being tested to the limit. Elected members are worried, senior staff are worried, business is anxious, and frontline workers across the public sector and communities are worried.

But we are in this together, worried as we care about bouncing back, about place prosperity across the UK, and forecasting a brighter future when we can, and will recover from this.

Tom Stannard is Corporate Director for Regeneration and Economic Growth at Wakefield Council and a Director of the Institute of Economic Development. This article is adapted from a version first published in Local Government Chronicle: https://www.lgcplus.com/services/health-and-care/tom-stannard-we-need-to-think-now-about-bouncing-back-from-coronavirus-27-03-2020/

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