Local authorities in the UK have, historically, received a mixed response from the public that they serve. Enduring periods of austerity, lack of funding from central government and changing customer preferences have, at times, led to the public notion that local government has a lacklustre approach to their services.
This perception is flawed and becomes questionable if you take a deeper look at the role local government plays in our everyday lives, and even more, the vital role they have played in helping defend our society from Covid-19.
Through even the most normal of weeks, our local councils ensure our streets remain clean, our children receive good education and our restaurants adhere to the correct health and hygiene standards. They work to ensure the development and regeneration of our town centres; and that they are filled with shops and entertainment venues. Their work does, not only, directly serve us and our communities, but also helps generate the income required for further investment into our crucial services such as social care, transport, infrastructure and housing.
All of this work, the creation of recreational facilities, the provision of fire services and environmental controls, comes with its challenges even in normal times. Pile on top of this the crippling effects of coronavirus and it seems that we are seeing a slow but sure change in the perception and respect for the work of local government. Within a few weeks, we have seen councils shifting their entire focus from their existing priorities, to deliver entirely new services, mobilise and reshape teams, to help focus on the current issues they now face.
We have watched as Mid-Devon District Council has used its council parking enforcement vehicles to deliver emergency food packages to the most vulnerable. We have witnessed authorities nationwide strive to support small businesses and charities through distribution of grants, with Exeter City Council launching funds to keep local charities going for as long as possible. Caerphilly County Borough Council has redeployed its Community Regeneration Team to support local food bank provision. In a matter of weeks, all London Borough Councils have come together and expanded the West London Alliance Partnership to bulk buy PPE, resulting in the successful distribution of more than 48 million PPE items. Alongside these larger projects, it is our local authorities that are painting two metre arrows along park paths to ensure we can safely distance ourselves from others in parks. Indeed, some authorities, including Birmingham City Council, have even gone as far as to cut its grass in two metre intervals and widen the pavements of its busiest high streets. These are just a few examples of the innovative solutions local authorities are creating, whilst also ensuring that critical services, such as waste, are still maintained.
In the midst of all this activity, while councils are fighting to keep us afloat, debates and controversy are being sparked. Has local government been let down by central government? Has the UK’s approach to addressing the pandemic been too centralised, and should more freedom have been given to the local authorities? Anthony Costello, previous Director of the Institute for Global Health at UCL, definitely believes so. He argues that with more local authority freedom, we could have had a greater and earlier impact with contact tracing using redeployment of public health teams, GPs and environmental health officers. Indeed, other literature argues that the financial cuts to local government have left them weakened to the crisis. Whether these debates themselves are useful during such unprecedented times is questionable. What can be highlighted from such discussions, however, is the struggle and the challenges that our councils face day in and day out, together with their undoubted successes.
From such a perspective, it is hard to deny that local authorities have always, and will always, continue to play an instrumental role in our society. There can surely be little argument against the view that local authorities have proved themselves, throughout this time, to be innovative, fast paced and forward thinking. The hope, moving forward, must be that these views remain constant and are remembered once we move into our ‘new normal’. This will allow us to consistently move forward, making our new normal a ‘better normal’.
And, with all of this in mind, perhaps we will see local government careers, and public sector as a brand, become attractive to a greater and more varied talent pool. Maybe the ambition local authorities have shown in this current crisis will make it more appealing to candidates of all ages and backgrounds? Indeed, for those Millennials who strive to find a highly varied career with maximum impact on society, perhaps the increased awareness of public sector work will help demonstrate the fruitful and exciting prospects that local government can offer? This may help return local government to a position where it is seen as a positive employer and one that attracts the best talent.