After the Deluge

May 6, 2020

How local government responds after the immediate crisis will define not just local government, but the places and people local government serves. ObR predicts perhaps a 15% fall in GDP, this with millions out of work. This will impact places differently, so we need different responses to those different challenges. As one example over 40% of the Oxford workforce are estimated to be able to work from home, in Middlesbrough it’s half that. Using a football rivalry as an analogy Newcastle beats Sunderland. Going through the crisis we have had our daily mantra, getting beyond the crisis we need a different one; Save the local economy, defend jobs, stay home focused. And we have learned one thing from the crisis, it’s never too early to start the planning.

If you thought it was tough so far

For many people at the cutting edge of this crisis the past months may have been some of the most challenging in their professional lives. The rest of us should be profoundly grateful to them for the commitment and personal sacrifices they have made (a more inclusive Thursday Night cheer perhaps), but for the state the bigger challenges are yet to come. Responding to crisis is a key attribute of a functioning state. We have one clear target (suppression of the virus), urgency and levers of power and authority to use.

But let’s dare to look beyond the crisis. We know there is no equivalent of VE Day when life returns to normal. Even then things did not return to normal immediately, indeed rationing continued for nine more years until midnight on the 4th July 1954.  What we face is even more problematic. Some sectors may recover quickly (hairdressers for instance are likely to be rather busy once (if) we work out a way to safely cut hair. But other sectors may take longer. Tourism is 10% of the economy but if lockdown continues until the autumn many tourist resorts will essentially have lost a whole years income). In other words, we are all in this together becomes a more difficult message.

Or let’s take another example, say pubs can reopen providing everyone keeps social distance rules. The message becomes pubs are ok provided you go by yourself and sit in the corner alone! Not an enticing prospect.

Thirdly the next stage requires some trade-offs, in other words some difficult choices. Whenever there are difficult choices some choice differentials affect some people more than others.

What will compound this is that certain places will bounce back quicker than others (consider Cambridgeshire and Cornwall).

Fourthly at the peak of the crisis it’s been clear what we had to do now. Indeed, such is the consensus re the crisis phase that the debate is not so much about what we should do now, but whether we should have known and acted sooner. Getting back to some new normal however there is less consensus. This is not just about weighing economic and health risks, but what strategies should be used even if we felt the health risks could be contained.

In other words at the very point where I suspect the public demand will be when can we get back to normal we need a serious dialogue both about how we get back to normal and also whether we should just go back to normal ( so for instance should we consciously not help carbon based activities and instead recover through a greener approach).

Put simply ministers may have had some sleepless nights through the crisis. They are about to find their days even more challenging.

Joe Simpson


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