A version of this blog was originally published on The MJ.co.uk on 10 November 2020.
It is clear that the coronavirus crisis will be with us for a long time. The new normal is really the perilous present, a long-lasting crisis in which disaster is never far away. The latest episode is of course the lockdown in England until 2 December and then the return to the tiering system. While the best-case scenario may have been Covid-19 then recession, the reality will be Covid-19 and a recession—which this week’s Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts have shown very clearly. And of course, we have the Brexit deal to come too—the oven-ready deal is turning out to be rather half-baked. Navigating all this uncertainty is proving challenging for our government and pretty overwhelming for all of us.
Rebuilding will be tough. Helping people, places and the planet to survive and thrive will be a massive effort. But reacting and rebuilding must happen together. And one thing we can be sure of: the sometimes maligned ‘do-gooders’ who make up civil society will play a key role in it.
Civil society needs to be listened to
Charities, social enterprises, community organisations and all their funders are crucial to getting us through this crisis and creating a better, greener and fairer world on the other side.
Despite everything, charities are fighting so hard to keep going; to keep getting food on people’s tables, sharing company with the lonely, and delivering vital health supplies to vulnerable people shielding from the virus. Charities are embracing new ways of working, of delivering services and of collaborating; ways that are very different and difficult for them.
That’s why civil society needs to be listened to, given a seat at the table both in Whitehall and in town halls. It is also why their financial needs should be taken more seriously by the Treasury than it looked like they were in the recent Spending Review.
Enthusiasm for the community sector can easily get misconstrued and lead to community organisations being touted as an alternative to the state. We have recently heard a lot about this as the government tried for several weeks to avoid U-turning on their free school meals policy under the heat of Marcus Rashford’s campaign. The answer that government loyalists, looking for a decent defence line, grasped at was to say that we must support communities rather than bring in a universal right to free meals for poorer kids in the school holidays.
Working together at a local level
I have no problem with arguing that we need policymakers at a national and local level who understand the centrality of charities and the social sector to a strong society and a strong economy, and for institutions to ensure voices are heard. It’s something that is severely lacking as I set out in a recent speech at our annual conference, NPC Ignites. But let’s not get carried away. Has anybody else noticed that it’s certain politicians who argue for communities as a sort of ‘replacement’ for the state, and rarely the charities?
Equally, let’s not deceive ourselves that the spontaneous and welcome growth of mutual aid and volunteering is a permanent substitute to the infrastructure provided by more established and formalised charities.
What we need is everyone working together, especially at a local level. We have seen some signs of this throughout the pandemic. Our current work on place-based approaches includes looking at how Coventry and Sutton councils are trying to make good interaction happen. And we’ve heard at our place-based approaches network meetings that in many areas there has been good collaboration between charities, local government and health organisations.
But there are dangers. While collaboration is happening more during the crisis, it tends to be in the same places as before. That’s partly because it takes time to build the relationships and social infrastructure that enable it. With all the barriers that are raised by Covid-19, we will need specific, targeted programmes and funding to help such infrastructure spring up where too little exists already. The government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda won’t work without this.
And none of this works without properly funded local government, that will work arm in arm with charities—Covid-19 has made this even clearer. Community groups and charities cannot do everything. Not only does their funding model not allow it, but we have a very uneven spread of charities across the country. Our research shows that there are more charities per head in richer places and fewer in poorer places, which matters a lot when we think about how the sector can address inequalities and indeed Covid-19. The new ‘levelling up’ fund may help, if it is used to fund social and well as physical infrastructure in more deprived areas. But the traditional social sector hostility to local government (and vice versa) does nobody any good.
Community and charity activity is helpful, and during Covid-19 it is absolutely essential, but we also need the central and local state to act if we are to take the comprehensive actions we need in order to tackle so many of the issues that we face.