Stephen Greenhalgh: The pandemic has shown faith groups helped those in need. We aim to foster that spirit.

14 Sep

Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities.

Over the past year and a half, the response of faith communities to the pandemic has been remarkable and I have been extremely proud of being the Faith Minister during this time.

Up and down the country, faith communities have risen to the challenges created by the pandemic, offering solace to so many people, not only for their spiritual wellbeing, but also by providing a multitude of support services.

Faith groups have been a lynchpin for many, providing pastoral care, support networks for older or vulnerable people, and continuing informal education and enriching cultural activities online.

Faith groups have also been at the forefront of the vaccine roll out, promoting and supporting people to take up the vaccine as well as countering the spread of misinformation – with many vaccines being given in places of worship up and down the country.

I am therefore delighted to share the steps I have taken to ensure we can build on the work witnessed over the past 18 months and strengthen the nature of engagement between national government, local government, and faith groups.

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund has two elements:

  • £1,000,000 (including £25,000 to aid capacity building in the faith community sector) available through a competitive Grant Fund to support Faith groups to deliver innovative partnership projects
  • Development of a Faith Compact which will set out key principles to aid engagement between faith groups, national government, and local government.

Each element aims to bring in the underutilised capacity of the faith sector to work alongside local public services. I am also seeking to reduce the number of initiatives taking place in silo, and make best use of national, local and philanthropic funding.

It is important to acknowledge two reports from parliamentarians / parliamentary groups that have helped to shape this new policy. Danny Kruger’s report for government, ‘Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant‘  and the APPG on Faith and Society’s report, ‘Keeping the Faith – Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities during and beyond the pandemic’.

Both reports set out the ability of faith groups to provide innovative solutions to complex problems to make valuable contributions to all parts of society.  I also expect the independent advisor Colin Bloom’s report on the Government’s engagement with faith communities to help me further form this policy – specifically the Faith Compact.

The £1m Faith New Deal Pilot Fund

The pilot fund is a new, competitive grant programme to test and strengthen relationships between public bodies and Faith groups. My intention is for this fund to explore how we build on the way faith groups have partnered with national and local government throughout the pandemic to see how we can forge a ‘new deal’ between government and faith communities to galvanise our energy in the national COVID-19 recovery effort.

The Fund has been designed to provide proof of concept that faith groups can play a significant and effective role in supporting wider communities to solve local problems, levering in additional philanthropic resources and providing match funding from their own resources. The intention for the funded projects is that they support capacity building efforts to develop learning and good practice, documenting the impact of their programmes and their unique role and contribution to civil society.

Faith Compact

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund will also inform the development of a Faith Compact, a set of partnership principles, to strengthen existing collaboration and inform future relationships. The Compact will seek to promote open working at all levels to give faith groups the opportunity to continue to work constructively and effectively as part of civil society. We will work closely with the APPG on Faith and Society, Danny Kruger MP, and Colin Bloom to determine the most effective way to inform this work.

The time is right to announce this new policy in response to recommendations made from our colleagues in parliament and the exceptional work we have witnessed over the last 18 months. The Faith New Deal will continue to build on the tenets of common understanding and collaboration and the fundamental proposition that by working together, we will achieve more through our common endeavours.

Judy Terry: Defeating the scourge of litter is just one example of the power of volunteering

6 May

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

The last year of unparalleled economic and emotional uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of community, and the way people have come together to support and look after each other.

For example, 750,000 people volunteered to help the NHS ‘test and trace’ when the call went out during the first lockdown. But volunteering is nothing new; it is embedded in the British DNA, with individuals and groups spending their free time doing a range of unpaid work, quietly and modestly, contributing to society, saving the State and local authorities billions of pounds annually.

So why did the Census not have any questions about volunteering, when the data is supposed to inform and prioritise future policy and investment for the next ten years?

Charities couldn’t survive without their volunteers, manning shops (when open) and foodbanks, as well as telephone helplines, including Childline and the Samaritans; volunteers are crucial to organising fundraising events, engaging with the disabled and lonely, masterminding amateur theatre performances, and managing local clubs which are key to the safety and security – as well as bringing fun – to their communities.

‘Saving Lives at Sea’ is a series of real-life incidents filmed by highly trained RNLI volunteers, illustrating their bravery and generosity of spirit in some of the most frightening circumstances. But they are not the only volunteers putting their own lives at risk to save others: in some locations, fire services rely on their volunteers for rapid response. We must also be grateful to the Mountain Rescue Service for going out in all weathers to help those at risk, as well as volunteer ambulance drivers and those who assist the Police and homeless.

Volunteer coastguards are also essential to the safety of experienced and amateur sailors as well as protecting beaches and swimmers, and supporting the Immigration Service, saving illegal immigrants from drowning when their boats are overwhelmed.

At times of crisis, including floods or wildfires destroying communities and countryside, volunteers immediately arrive with tractors and other equipment, food and hot drinks, they help with searches to find and transport the most vulnerable at particular risk, opening their homes and public buildings to offer comfort to victims. They also put their own lives at risk to save livestock, wildlife, and domestic pets.

With the environment threatened by waste, groups of litterpickers regularly spend hours collecting the rubbish thrown out of cars, left on beaches, and dropped in the countryside, endangering wildlife as well as potentially causing damaging fires. Volunteers help with mental health and wellbeing on allotments, welcoming the lonely and forgotten to tea and coffee with cake in ‘man sheds’, creating a friendly atmosphere for sharing concerns and expertise.

Retired Ministers routinely volunteer to conduct services in their local places of worship, across all religions, providing leadership and comfort in the good, as well as bad, times.

National Trust and Museums rely on volunteer guides, who also man public libraries, or put themselves forward to become parish councillors and school governors. Volunteer sports coaches are key to mentoring and developing young people’s fitness, keeping them out of trouble by giving them the confidence to recognise and develop their own abilities, learning to socialise, and giving them hope and ambition as they plan their futures.

Whilst it was always common practice for neighbours to babysit for each other, and look after pets when their owners are away, during the last difficult year, many thousands more people have relied on the kindness of neighbours, doing their shopping, taking their dogs for walks, helping with some garden maintenance or painting fences. People of all ages, from all walks of life, have responded to these challenges, bringing empathy, and humour, where appropriate, during doorstep conversations.

Once the vaccine rollout began, volunteers were on hand to help manage sites, and drive the elderly and vulnerable to get their jabs, celebrating the likelihood of long-awaited freedom to see friends and family again with them.

Volunteers have a remarkable humility; they are driven by a strong sense of duty and a willingness to share whatever knowledge and skills they have, expecting nothing in return.

Consequently, the Census was a wasted opportunity, when this commitment to others is evidently so undervalued that it won’t be recorded, leaving a massive gap in the ‘data’ analysis. How will this be reflected in expenditure – and where it is directed – over the coming decade?

It is a significant failure because cash-strapped Government and local councils appear dismissive of their (hidden) reliance on volunteers who save taxpayers billions of pounds. Something to be celebrated rather than ignored; perhaps volunteers should adopt the massive egos of some politicians to be appreciated.

Chris Thomas: The Government needs a plan to substantiate its ambitious rhetoric on health reforms

7 Apr

Chris Thomas is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Over the last forty years, there has been a remarkable consistency in health reforms under both Conservative and Labour governments. In different ways, each has reflected a common core triplet: drive quality through competition; maintain financial sustainability through efficiency; and ensure popularity by focusing policy and funding on the NHS.

More recently, Boris Johnson’s government has indicated a willingness to break from this path. February’s health white paper – Integration and Innovation – gestures towards three, potentially seismic changes. First, a shift from competition to collaboration; second, a shift from NHS-centrism to a more holistic vision of health; third, a shift from short-term efficiency to long-term innovation.

Each is a welcome aspiration. But, at the moment, the white paper only constitutes a statement of ambition. It will take far more than some proposed top-down legislation to reflect these ambitions in practice and to deliver lasting change. And indiscriminately throwing money at the NHS won’t help either.

The Government has recognised that business as usual won’t be good enough on health following the pandemic. Achieving pledges like “build back better” will rely on delivering a more collaborative, holistic and long-term approach to health. And that means putting forward a plan to fully substantiate the rhetoric.

From competition to collaboration

Strikingly, the Government’s proposals contain a fundamental ideological shift. Instead of a system fragmented into provider units and forced to compete with each other, it envisions larger integrated providers working together and collaborating to improve the nation’s overall health.

It is the right decision. Competition and the internal market fragmented the health system and made our Covid-19 response noticeably more challenging. But after years of fragmentation, it will take far more than a single, centralised decree to create lasting collaboration.

Bottom-up integration has flourished during the pandemic. When I ask professionals and local health leaders, they almost always put this down to the centre removing artificial barriers – be they financial, regulatory or bureaucratic. Out of Covid-19 necessity, health leaders have been given more freedom, and with that freedom they’ve moved to collaboration by default.

The challenge for the Government is to maintain that new way of working and to replicate the conditions for integrated, local “system working” after the pandemic.

System working means redefining the role of the centre – from commander to enabler. That necessitates a stronger focus on culture change and working with the regulators to align incentives to boost health service integration and population health. It would also mean cultivating a common sense of purpose and mission.

And creating more networks and forums for cross-sector collaboration. Some of these, like the cancer network, were disbanded during the last decade, but forums to meet and discuss are vital for increasing integrated working.

From NHS-centrism, to the primacy of place

A second key shift indicated by the white paper is the Government’s recognition of the “primacy of place”. Again, this is the correct course – recognising that the places we grow-up, live and work define our health throughout our lives.

It also challenges the widespread assumption that health is synonymous with only the NHS. Reflecting this fact in practice will depend on the cultivation of thriving local partnerships – between the NHS, social care, public health, community services and the voluntary sector. In turn, that means addressing just how bad things have got for many non-NHS health service providers.

The social care system is a case in point. While it struggled during the pandemic, the truth is it needed fundamental reform long before 2020. The political consensus is growing behind free personal social care, free at the point of need and funded through general taxation. The Government should act fast to enact this and end the decades of prevarication.

Similarly, public health is in need of a reboot. Despite covering preventative local services such as stop smoking initiatives, sexual health services and healthy living schemes designed to prevent underlying health conditions, the public health grant has been cut by almost £1 billion since 2014. Those cuts have fallen disproportionately on lower income parts of the country and on the North of England. We need a funded, functional public health system to make the primacy of place a reality.

Simply put, place-based health and care means extending political engagement, resource and reform far beyond the NHS and brick and mortar hospitals, ensuring every community has the local health services needed to lead healthy dignified lives.

From efficiency to innovation

The white paper’s reforms are designed, ultimately, to support innovation. By making all health leaders jointly responsible for the total health of the population, the Government hopes to uncork the power of health innovation. New treatments, medicines and best practice can significantly boost health outcomes and the economy.

Covid-19 demonstrated what’s possible when it comes to the spread of innovation. The shift to digital in general practice for instance has been an aspiration for years, but finally happened at pace during the pandemic. However, if the Government want its reforms to make fast innovation the norm, it will once again need more that legislative changes and top-down diktat.

Much more importantly, it will need to change the fact the NHS is currently run to the top of its capacity – all through the year. In healthcare, austerity suppressed supply, even as health demand rose. This has left the healthcare providers with little headspace, time and bandwidth.

More bluntly, healthcare professionals just do not have the time they need to adopt, adapt and champion innovation. Change will rely on a bold strategy for ending burn-out, driving recruitment and improving retention rates. Evidence indicates an effective, immediate strategy would combine a pay rise, more leave, a right to flexible working, stronger professional development and more extensive action on institutional racism in health.

Innovation is only possible in a system at the top of its game. That is the reason austerity represented short-termism. It is time to invest in health capacity and professionals, to boost productivity and deliver globally leading outcomes.

Meeting an uncertain future

When it comes to health, we face an uncertain future. Analysis by IPPR and the CF health analytics company shows that due to the pandemic we can expect an additional 4,500 extra deaths from cancer this year; 12,000 extra heart attacks and strokes in the next five years; and two million more mental health referrals. On top of that, there is a continuing risk of future health shocks. Pandemics are becoming more likely and resistance to anti-microbials is growing.

A vision for health and care based on a collaborative health system, healthier places and rapid adoption of innovation could help meet those challenges. If the Government gets it right, it could launch a new health consensus and define the agenda for decades. But that will only happen if it combines welcome aspiration with sustained, funded and evidenced health policy.

Marina Kim and Nabil Najjar: Let’s honour the heroes of the pandemic on the 23rd of March

22 Mar

Marina is communications and public affairs specialist; she set up the UK Community Network to help the most vulnerable people in society during the pandemic. Nabil is a political and international development consultant, and relationships and outreach coordinator for the UK Community Network.

The pandemic has brought out the best in our communities, with neighbours helping neighbours, Covid-19 mutual aid and community support groups taking off, and newfound support and gratitude for our NHS. We have even seen people who have never volunteered before stepping up for the occasion. It’s been heart-warming to see our society springing into action and self-organising on the ground.

As we prepare for easing off the restrictions and the road to recovery after a year of the pandemic, it is time to show our appreciation for people who have been supporting the most vulnerable in our communities across the country. With that in mind, here at the UK Community Network we propose marking the UK Community Day tomorrow.

Numerous cross-party MPs have already supported the idea. We hope many more MPs will be willing to show their support for the UK Community Day by speaking out publicly about it, making their constituents aware that they can take part by taking a pledge to volunteer on the day and, most importantly, making this a yearly event in our calendars.

While for some people volunteering is a way of life, others need more encouragement. Having one day each year dedicated to encouraging people to do something positive in their communities, and celebrating those who have gone above and beyond for others, would be a testament to their work, and a positive legacy from the pandemic.

And the time to do that is now, when the spirit of togetherness is almost omnipresent.

These activities do not necessarily require people to be in a group ,and do not have to be focused on the pandemic-related activities. Even picking up litter on your local beach or a park could be a great way to contribute. You could get involved online by raising awareness about a charity of your choice, donating money, fundraising, or doing a bit of research work for them.

We would also encourage charities to come up with ideas of how they would like people, some of whom might never have volunteered before, to get involved with them for Community Day to try out what the volunteering is like.

Volunteering does not only benefit to the person who is being helped, it can help people make friends and feel less lonely, learn new skills and advance your career, and even feel happier and healthier. It makes living in your local area more enjoyable. The Ipsos Mori research for the Cabinet Office in 2015 highlighted that almost all young participants in social action feel a ‘double benefit’ (93 per cent), in that they say they benefitted personally and considered that other people benefitted from their activities.

People who volunteer even once then get the bug to do so more often, and we are likely to see that spirit of the Community Day manifesting itself again and again for years to come.

This initiative joins together Community Heroes from all over the country. At a time when there are some voices that want the UK to be less united, the initiative to mark the UK Community Day does more than just celebrate the Heroes, it also unites the nation. We were pleased to see nearly a hundred people from Belfast, Manchester, Glasgow and small villages from all parts of the UK being nominated and selected as local Community Heroes, and at an online event on the 23rd, we are looking forward to showing our respect and admiration to them and hearing their stories.

At 8pm on the 23 March we will also be lighting the candles for a minute of silence to reflect and remember those who have been taken from us by the pandemic. The toll would have undoubtedly been worse without the selfless efforts of volunteers. Let’s celebrate our local heroes, support hardworking charities and community groups, and cement the spirit of togetherness. Let’s honour the heroes of the pandemic on the 23 March, the newly-proposed UK Community Day.

Zewditu Gebreyohanes: We need a Government-backed scheme to help older people volunteer in schools

7 Dec

Zewditu Gebreyohanes is studying PPE at King’s College, London.

Imagine that you are eighty years old. It is a bright, sunny morning but you are sitting by the window in your armchair, watching enviously as everyone else goes about their daily lives: mothers chatting to one another, children laughing playfully, and the neighbour striding purposefully to work.

You want to join them; you yearn to go out, to socialise and to be an engaged member of the community but somehow you feel your time has passed.

Although many elderly people in the UK are positively and actively engaged in their communities in a variety of ways, loneliness affects a significant and growing proportion, with over two million of those aged 75 and above living, according to Age UK, in relative social isolation.

It is in order to address this emerging crisis that I proposed – in my recent pitch for the Conservative Policy Forum’s ‘Policy Pitch’ finals at the online Conservative Party Conference – that the government introduce a nationwide scheme whereby elderly people are given the chance to volunteer in local primary schools, helping to organise and run projects such as gardening, knitting, singing, drawing, acting or storytelling. Almost everyone has at least one hobby about which they are passionate and which they could share with an interested audience, especially of eager and receptive young children.

Of course, there are unsung heroes who have been volunteering in this way for many years but, if this were organised and coordinated by the Government as a formal scheme, it could have a much wider reach.

The benefits that such a scheme could yield are manifold. Foremost amongst these is that the volunteers would have a meaningful and rewarding occupation which would boost their wellbeing.

The opportunity to meet people on a daily basis and to form relationships would be invaluable: studies have proven that greater social interaction can prevent the onset of illnesses such as depression, dementia, and indeed cardiovascular disease, with the latter being due to the higher levels of exercise. This would reduce the burden on the currently strained NHS and other elderly care services.

Another benefit would be to the schools, as the volunteers could play a supportive role in the classroom, not just in terms of helping with supervision, but also imparting advice and encouragement to teachers. Crucially, the scheme would not incur any additional cost to schools or to local authorities, save perhaps for lunch and bus expenses, meaning that any school, irrespective of its financial circumstance, would be able to draw on support from the pool of volunteers should it wish to do so.

Needless to say, schoolchildren would be huge beneficiaries of such a scheme. In the first place, it would open up new opportunities to the children which may not otherwise have been available to them, enabling their academic and extracurricular development to be fuller and more rounded. Moreover, as citizens who have served society for decades and have a wealth of life experience and wisdom, elderly people are excellent role models for young children; engaging in regular intergenerational interaction from a young age could help make the pupils more worldly, mature, and sociable, all of which are qualities they will need to succeed in life.

Yet arguably the most important impact of such a scheme would be that it would inculcate within young people a desire to give back to society themselves when they are older. Seeing elderly people volunteer their time to help them would doubtless instil within the children a sense of civic duty and would encourage them to respect and to celebrate older citizens: something that is critical today, as age-based discrimination appears to have become more widespread in society.

This would foster a stronger community spirit and is of paramount importance in ensuring the long-term security of the elderly.

Nor should the various advantages that such a scheme could bring to the wider community be overlooked. For instance, local economies would doubtless be boosted, as if more elderly people are able to feel that they are valued members of their communities, they will be more likely to go out and spend, helping small local businesses and high streets.

Of course, with the ongoing global pandemic and the greater susceptibility of the elderly to the virus, it is unlikely that this scheme could be rolled out in the near future. Nonetheless, once normality returns, it is something that, if coordinated effectively, could benefit the nation.

Imagine that you are eighty years old. It is a bright, sunny morning and you are getting ready, dressing for work just like everyone else. You are excited about the day ahead: today the pupils will be performing the play to the entire school. You had sat with them to help them learn their lines, design the set, and make the costumes. It will be lovely to see the children’s happy faces and to hear the appreciation of the teachers and parents, as the whole production finally comes together.

You have made a difference to the children’s lives, but what a difference they have made to yours

JP Floru: The call for ‘Covid Marshals’ shows that ministers are losing their grip on the nation

11 Sep

J.P. Floru is the author of The Sun Tyrant: A Nightmare called North Korea and Heavens on Earth: How to Create Mass Prosperity. He contested Bermondsey and Old Southwark in the 2015 General Election.

I always wondered why so many civilians aid authoritarian regimes: people spying on their neighbours, and denouncing their work colleagues and friends, helping tyrants to stay in power.

It existed in all East European communist countries. It existed in Nazi-Germany, and in the countries it occupied. In the Stasi Unterlagen Behorde (the Stasi Records Office) in Berlin, people can find out who of their friends landed his mother, sister, or son in prison or worse. Civilian informer systems still exist in Cuba, North Korea and a raft of other countries.

What motivates people to do the unspeakable? And in such numbers? Imagine my surprise to find the answer in 2020 Britain. A nation nominally free since Magna Carta, and definitely free since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and rightly proud of it. Yet when the lockdown started, the police were overwhelmed by calls from people informing on their neighbours.

Are these informers ‘evil’? Perhaps a few are, and make up allegations. Some may do it as a lark.

But most simply see it as a civic duty. They believe that what they are doing is right. The democratically elected government of the United Kingdom is fighting a terrible danger. The citizens want to help. Anything ‘endangering’ the nation is fair game. If you don’t do anything illegal, you have nothing to fear, right?

Has it occurred that people who did this under authoritarian regimes did it for the same reason? Perhaps a few were forced into informing to save their own lives. Perhaps some did it out of revenge, or for personal gain. But the vast majority thought they were doing ‘the right thing’. They saw a ‘danger’ (communism, the Jews, fascism, republicanism, the infidel) and wanted to protect their country.

Why? Perhaps they held those ideological beliefs. In many cases, it was what their government told them. Which they believed, for whatever reason.

In the long run, It is impossible for a minority to enforce its views upon the unwilling majority. The more unfair and severe the rules, the more difficult it becomes. There is only so much the police can do. Ultimately, for the regime to survive, to enforce unpopular and onerous rules, you need more than the paid staff to make it happen. You need the active support of at least part of the population.

You can do this in two ways. First, you make sure that following the rules becomes a ‘moral duty’. Nothing works better than to make people believe that what they are doing ‘is right’. Yes! You should call the police when your neighbour invites six friends for an illegal dinner party – because somewhere a wonderful granny may die as a result!

Following the rules is not an individual choice: it is to save another person. Observe how traditional logic has been turned upside down.

Secondly, you make it formal. You encourage civilians to help enforce the law. All authoritarian regimes do this. When I went to North Korea, I quickly became aware of ‘inminbans’. Inminbans are typically bossy ladies of a certain age who keep an eye on the twenty households under their remit. She keeps a register of anyone going in or out of your flat. She checks your travel permit. She has a key to your flat, and checks that the compulsory portraits of The Leaders are kept clean and dusted. Once a week she has a meeting with the security services, where she informs on what she has seen.

She is feared and paid. Almost every communist country had a similar system. It is notorious in Cuba: they are called Committees for the Defence of the Revolution.

Now we are introducing a formalised informer system in the UK. Boris Johnson announced that an army of ‘Covid Marshals’ will help enforce tough new rules.

You can say that our situation is quite different from authoritarian regimes. But is it? The PRime Minister was elected with a huge majority, basically because of Brexit, for five years. There is no election in sight. His majority is such that no MP dares to disagree publicly as he or she can simply be ignored. Then a sudden unexpected emergency came along – about which we knew nothing when we voted. He just appointed an unknown Chancellor who owes everything to him. He rules with a small number of friendly Cabinet members (‘C19’) and an unelected spin doctor.

Johnson panicked when Professor Ferguson issued his Report, predicting a catastrophic death toll. His spin doctor had a Damascene conversion and bought it. His small number of Cabinet Members who surround him likewise. He decided the lockdown of the entire population, at a catastrophic cost. He dramatically set aside the herd immunity policy which had been developed for just such pandemics by successive governments since 2005.

They introduced the lockdown. As most were in hysterical fear of the new unknown disease, they supported the measures. We now have more information. Opposition is becoming vocal. Is the population still on board? Having been locked up for many months, nobody believes that a severe lockdown is feasible again.

That severe measures are no longer supported is clear for all who want to see. It started with supermarket refusing to enforce masks. The Metropolitan Police announced it would only intervene in extreme cases. The anti-lockdown demonstrations are growing in strength. Social media are on fire. Want the pulse of the nation? Read the comments on Guido Fawkes, or here on ConHome.

So now the Government hires informers. They have to, because they do not have the police numbers to enforce severe new rules. They can no longer count on the moral support of the long-suffering population: most of us have picked up on the fact that the death toll is very low, and that it is not possible to survive without keeping the country’s economy running.

If you have lost the support of the people, and need informers, you need to take stock.

Simon Kaye: The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic was a wake up

29 Jul

Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at the New Local Government Network.

We live – as we’re constantly told – in turbulent times.

Even before the arrival of a new viral pandemic and months of self-induced economic coma, changes were clearly on the horizon. Politically polarised culture war, drastic and unpredicted shake-ups of the UK’s constitutional status quo, the slowly-boiling-frog feeling of technological progress, environmental degradation, collapsing faith in democratic institutions, and ever-growing, ever-more-complex demands on public services.

But this turbulence also creates a moment of radical possibility.

The COVID-19 emergency has highlighted a structurally different way of approaching the most serious challenges we face. The thousands of mutual aid groups that have emerged in the last few months – the subject of our new report at NLGN – reflect a general rise in neighbourliness, community cohesion, and attachment to place.

While this is an effect visible almost everywhere affected by the pandemic, there is evidence to suggest that Britain has experienced this effect in a more pronounced way than everywhere else. Perhaps this is because we are measuring from such a low starting-point. The UK is, by many measures, one of the most centralised countries in the world. This was never more visible than in the systematic failure of the centre to respond to the pandemic – with over-centralisation ruining our efforts to set up test-and-trace systems, create useful tracking apps, and work effectively with facilities and resources not under direct government control.

While the current government seems to be alive to the pressing need for modernisation and streamlining at the crowded centre of Whitehall, there had been very little interest in a meaningful devolution and decentralisation agenda which could genuinely ‘level-up’ regional economies and give people a real sense of ‘taking back control’.

Little interest, that is, until now. The scale of the community and voluntary response to the pandemic may have just about served as the wake up call that the centre needs. The Prime Minister has called for new proposals to support and sustain the community response that we have seen as the country turns toward recovery.

There are lessons aplenty in our report on the new mutual aid groups, where thousands of people spontaneously responded to the crisis by supporting their shielding and vulnerable neighbours, sometimes by meeting essential needs for food and medicine, and at other times in a surprisingly sophisticated way that addressed welfare issues too. Our research revealed an extraordinary diversity of approaches and experiences. In many places mutual aid was the only thing that made the government’s ‘shielding’ policy at all workable.

Mutual aid groups show an appetite for self-governance and localism that many thought to be extinct in the UK. They represent a way for people to invest time in the places they live and the people they live near, and improve their lives independently of the state. Many of the groups we spoke to expressed a desire to sustain their newfound local cohesion and spirit of friendly collaboration after the end of the crisis.

Our research shows that the success of these groups often hinged on the special circumstances of the current emergency. This means that, for community action of this sort to continue, ways must be found to create space for the flourishing of flexible, autonomous, and citizen-driven activity at the neighbourhood level.

So how can this be done?

First – embrace the role of local government. In the best cases we observed, councils offered expertise, resources and spaces for mutual aid groups to thrive. They also stood out of the way and allowed these groups the freedom to respond quickly and on their own terms. We suggest that councils work to build up the skills, tools, and culture they need to help facilitate and empower community groups in the future. Of course, it should go without saying that councils will need to be properly resourced if they are to do this important work.

Second, and just as importantly, create the time for people to be better neighbours.

In many places the conditions for these groups’ strength was created by the free time of working-age people who were furloughed or otherwise found they had little work to do. We think it would be appropriate to incentivise employers to allow more free and flexible time for employees – perhaps specifically earmarked for community engagement – so they can spend that time on being good neighbours. Normalising a shorter and more flexible working week, introducing new bank holidays, and increasing statutory holiday time could all help, too.

We don’t long for permanent economic lockdown, of course, but the mutual aid phenomenon does demonstrate that many people will use their free time in extraordinarily productive and pro-social ways. As the economy fires up again, this free time is likely to evaporate – but the needs that the mutual aid groups are meeting will not fade nearly as fast.

Such measures would help begin the work of building up the resilience and fortitude of our communities, and even help replace dependence on top-down systems with meaningful localism and autonomy. We owe it to ourselves to find a very different starting-point before the next big challenge arrives.