Local action and the post-Covid recovery

22 July 2020

The recovery must involve a serious allocation of existing competencies and finances that hitherto reside at the national level down to local government

Carl Wright

According to the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation, OECD, some 100 of the 169 targets for the UN Sustainable Development Goals, (SDGs), require implementation at local government and community level. The SDGs cover a wide range of issues including dealing with poverty, heath, education, economic growth, inequality, urbanisation, climate change, public accountability and much more. Likewise, the Local Government Association of England and Wales (LGA) has just co-published a guide for councils detailing how to implement the SDGs locally. The EU, too, is strongly committed to the principle of subsidiarity, whereby decision making is undertaken at the appropriate level, whether that be local, regional, national or European.

It is therefore not surprising that local government has been at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19 everywhere, and has: maintained essential municipal services such as refuse collection, ensured the continued operation of social workers, and kept the public informed about healthcare precautions throughout the lockdown. Local authorities have also had to make special provision for vulnerable groups in society such as the homeless by putting them up in vacant hotel rooms. All this has come at considerable financial cost.

The extent of local government involvement depends on the degree of decentralisation in a given country or region. It is naturally greatest in those countries, like Germany, where local authorities have been delegated many powers from the central government, including as regards fiscal matters. However in the UK, which is more centralised than the likes of Germany, Whitehall has had to delegate direct responsibilities to local mayors and their officials to deal with the pandemic across a range of areas. For this purpose, the British Government has allocated an extra £3.32 billion to councils, but even this substantial amount has been insufficient to meet the huge cost of dealing with Covid-19 locally.

As with central government, given the massive outlay of cash during the pandemic, local government now faces spiralling financial deficits. Unless these are resolved by new sources of income, there is an acute danger of vital local services – already cut to the bone during years of austerity in many countries post-2008 – will simply disappear. This is not a sustainable scenario, given the essential nature of such services. It needs to be urgently addressed by close cooperation between all levels of government and, in particular, the banking and financial sector.

On a more positive note, many local governments are now beginning to look at strategies to ensure a sustainable recovery from Covid-19. Local economies and businesses have taken a major hit from the pandemic resulting in commercial downscaling, staff redundancies, and bankruptcies. Even previously prosperous areas, especially if they rely on earnings from tourism or the hospitality sector, are badly affected, from big cities to small seaside towns and rural resorts. As a result, a new geography of inequality in income and wealth is starting to emerge which could have major economic, social and political repercussions.

There is a widely-held realisation that ‘business as usual’ is not an option. Fuelling unrestrained economic growth in order to boost jobs and incomes cannot be done in isolation from considerations of sustainable development in line with the aforementioned SDG targets, in particular SDG 13 which addresses climate change. As a result, local governments, many of which had already committed to addressing the climate emergency and SDG implementation prior to the pandemic, are now looking seriously at the prospect of a green-led recovery, seeking to support Green New Deal policies and create green jobs.

In England the LGA has estimated that nearly 700,000 such green jobs can be created by 2030. This idea is gaining increased currency among policy-makers: after all, Covid-19 can ultimately be overcome, but drastic climate change may be irreversible unless, at a minimum, the 2015 Paris Climate targets are met, preferably well before the current target of 2050.

A good example of this new thinking is Kent County Council which is seeking to coordinate a county-wide Covid recovery plan through the Kent Resilience Forum. It is currently developing guiding principles for a green recovery. These include seeking to ensure that all investment and future growth should have net-zero carbon emissions, should use resources efficiently and should aim for environmental net gain. Under the guiding principles, communities should be well-connected both digitally, and through an effective network of paths, cycleways and public transport,future developments and communities should be resilient and adapted to changing climate and severe weather events; and biodiversity should be protected, restored and created.

This green-led approach to Covid-19 recovery requires active public support and engagement. Recent surveys have shown that there is public appetite for change, whether it relates to adopting more sustainable patterns of consumption, commuting habits, or energy-conservation. In the UK, Canterbury Climate Action Partnership, CCAP, brings together local government, businesses, universities and civil society organisations, including youth climate activists, to promote zero carbon and sustainable solutions to climate change. There are innumerable examples of such community and local government partnerships addressing climate action and sustainable development across Europe and beyond. What they all have in common is that it is local action and local initiatives that are driving change.

All the good intentions and plans for local green-led recovery can be undone by unwise central government decisions and by reverting to out-of-date thinking. A current case in point is the UK Government’s decision to authorise a massive development of the hitherto defunct small airport of Manston in East Kent. This decision was taken against the explicit advice of the official Planning Inspectorate which warned against the impact the development would have on climate change, noise pollution, biodiversity, and a range of other environmental factors. It also potentially calls into question the UK’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement at the very time it is preparing to host the crucial COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021. Not surprisingly, the Manston airport proposals are encountering vigorous opposition, and not only from climate activists.

More fundamentally, in a country like the UK, there exists only very grudging central government willingness to decentralise functions from Whitehall to local communities, especially when it comes to fiscal and tax-raising authority. Although there has been some progress in recent years with the establishment of directly elected mayors in big British cities, their powers are relatively limited when compared to many of their European counterparts. Even the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has much less authority than the mayors of, say, Berlin or Paris. In some instances- Hungary being a case in point- central governments have used the smokescreen of crisis to claw back powers and to recentralise competencies away from local government, thus to undermining local democracy.

If there is to be truly effective local action for Covid Recovery, more radical solutions are needed than currently exist in countries like the UK. These would involve a serious allocation of existing competencies and finances that hitherto reside at the national level down to local government. It is sobering to think back to 1979 when UK local government had the ability to raise 80% of its own revenue but successive government legislation, in the Thatcher years especially, saw this dwindle down to less than 30%. Thus today, the powers of local authorities are far below what they were 40 years ago, and this trend that must be urgently reversed in order for local communities to be able to respond to the fallout of the pandemic. It is local communities, represented by their democratically elected mayors and councillors, which should be able to decide on local priorities and community needs. They can only do this if they have the necessary powers to do so.

It has been said that ‘all politics is local’. Unfortunately, this message has been insufficiently heard or acted upon in the corridors of power, at least in the UK. The urgent requirements for the Covid Recovery and the looming Climate Emergency require a different response which cannot wait.