Councils and Coronavirus: How are “community hubs” bringing together local authorities and civil society?

The Devolution and Local Government Network’s Elliot Bidgood writes part one of his series on what recent government announcements have meant for councils, voluntary organisations and new ‘Mutual Aid’ groups on the frontline of the response to coronavirus

A decade of punishing cuts has changed how both local government and the voluntary sector in the UK have come to operate, compelling them to do more to meet the needs of those that rely on them with diminished resources. They now find themselves in the unprecedented crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, and though the central government spending taps are coming on in ways few of us would have envisaged under a Tory government, the capacity and institutional memory they have likely lost over time cannot be rebuilt in an instant. At the same time, fresh systems must now be developed on the spot to confront a new challenge.

On March 22nd the government announced that council-led “community hubs” would be created to support the 1.5m people most at risk from COVID-19 and advised to “shield”. These hubs aim to draw together local authorities with supermarkets, pharmacies, the armed forces, established charities and the newest addition to British civil society, ‘Mutual Aid’ groups. These are the bands of ordinary volunteers springing up across the country, often organised through Facebook and WhatsApp and loosely part of a national network, COVID-19 Mutual Aid UK. Amid all the gloom, they perhaps represent 2020’s contribution to a rich tradition of British self-help and community endeavour, reminiscent of the Friendly Societies and early Co-ops that were a vital part of the founding of our own labour movement.

Council leaders responded to the announcement with an initial demand for clarity about how these “hubs” should work, particularly in two-tier areas with overlapping councils. There are reports of variation in how they have developed, with some councils setting up new structures or websites and others placing existing Council for Voluntary Service (CVS) centres at the heart of their coordinating efforts, for example, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It makes sense for community responses to evolve from existing infrastructure and relationships, or from geographic realities. Upper-tier authorities can appoint a lead officer for their efforts, but Labour-run Cumbria indicated it would create hubs in each district of the sparsely-populated county, while Manchester City Council has three local hubs operating below a central body.

Calls for volunteers have prompted an explosion in demand, with 750,000 people signing up as NHS ‘Volunteer Responders’ alone. Volunteers can be directed to help at-risk individuals with deliveries of food and prescriptions, transport to appointments or simply with phone calls (Keir Starmer’s new shadow minister for the voluntary sector Rachael Maskell recently reflected on loneliness and the role of voluntary efforts in addressing it, after she experienced self-isolation). The NHS and Royal Voluntary Service have partnered to launch an app called GoodSAM that issues requests to local volunteers, though some on-call volunteers have complained in local Mutual Aid groups that they aren’t getting instructions quickly enough. The sudden prominence of volunteers in the effort has also raised issues around professionalism, coordination and security (the surge of interest is making standard DBS checks difficult), as well as concerns about the risks to the mental and physical health of volunteers. Some foodbanks have opted to close after losing core volunteers to illness or self-isolation, coupled with a fall in needed donations.

In London, the borough of Hackney has provided good examples for other areas to follow in responding to the crisis – Mayor Philip Glanville’s Labour council has guaranteed a three-month rent holiday for 50 voluntary organisations housed by the council, relaxed grant terms to the sector and made £500k of Discretionary Crisis funds available to struggling local residents. Independent bookshops shuttered by the lockdown have offered to incorporate themselves into a community library service, and 1,200 volunteers have delivered over 2,000 meals to residents in need. Brighton and Hove is providing emergency loans through its Third Sector Investment Programme, while in Manchester volunteers are delivering Fuel Assistance cards alongside food and medicine, and a new helpline for those in self-isolation prompted 800 calls in its first two days. And in Plymouth the council has established Good Neighbours, an online platform matching requests for help to the skills of individuals and local businesses.

This shows a range of innovations from municipal government and civil society partners, but fundamentally central government must enable them to do more. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pledged £500m for council tax relief and £1.6bn for council services such as social care and homelessness provision, but such figures must be taken in context – local government funding has been slashed by £16bn in the past decade, with deprived areas taking larger reductions. Likewise, the £750m eventually announced for the charity sector has drawn significant criticism, in the face of a £4.3bn projected shortfall in the next three months alone. The NCVO has also reported in past that the proportion of public funding for the voluntary sector that comes direct from central government has risen at the same time that austerity has bitten deep locally, elevating ministerial projects over local discretion and collaboration. This in particular must be put right if we are to free communities to respond effectively to COVID-19, and govern themselves better thereafter.

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