Vital Signs

Building regional economic resilience in the COVID age

Author: Joe Fyans   |  

Vital Signs

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In the UK, Covid-19 struck a country rife with regional inequality, already on the brink of major economic upheaval as part of the Brexit process, and deeply dividing along political and geographical lines. The effects of the crisis exposed longstanding issues – crucially with economic resilience in England’s regions and funding of public services – which are intricately tied into the balance of power between local and central government. Yet in the response from local communities and the local state, there are lessons to be learned that may help point to a path away from not just the depths of the crisis but also the sluggish growth and widespread inequality of recent decades.

Vital Signs covers the local government response to the social and economic upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic 2020, particularly focusing on the national lockdown from March to June, but also including the period up to October 2020.The goal of the report is to detail those moments in the crisis where new forms of organisation and action have emerged at the local level that might provide the beginnings of a blueprint for a better way forward.

Key points

Local government in the pandemic

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, government at all levels has been functioning in an environment of extreme uncertainty; faced with difficult, unenviable and inter-dependent trade-offs presented by a myriad set of health, economic and social challenges. On the economic side of the crisis, most council activity in the first months of the pandemic was focused on business support. Through the Small Business Grant Fund, councils supported thousands of small businesses up and down the country by distributing money provided by central government. Beyond this distributor role, however, has been the business support function – advisory hubs and services set up across the country by councils, LEPs and chambers of commerce. The report also highlights the work of local government to facilitate rapid adaptation of high streets, town and village centres. Active travel strategies were brought in or accelerated in rural and urban areas, pedestrianisation was adopted at pace to supportlocal business whilst adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Building back better

The Build Back Better campaign is underpinned by five objectives; to secure the health and needs of everyone in the UK, protect and invest in our public services, rebuild society with a transformative Green New Deal, invest in people, and to build solidarity and community across borders. On the route to net zero, councils have a leadership role within strategic planning that no other organisation has which must be operationalised in the push to build back better. For the local state to drive this job creation, however, there must be devolution of funds to invest. Across the country, many councils and LEPs have identified clean growth initiatives and the current situation does not allow for the ‘bidding for pots’, piecemeal evaluation process currently in place for central government investment.

Looking ahead

Recovery and renewal of local economies has been prioritised by the vast majority of councils across the UK, and a number have placed particular emphasis on understanding how the ongoing disruption from the pandemic is likely to play out at the local level. Despite the plunge in GDP, the general uncertainty
may be a window for new, more strategic approaches to implementing policy. Devolution deals, in these extremely pressing circumstances, do not need to be as complicated or as drawn-out as they have been in the past.

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