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Communities must be at the heart of plans for a new resilient Britain

Our chief executive Matt Leach looks to a world after lockdown and considers how any recovery plan should focus on building resilient communities.

In a few days’ time, Local Trust will be publishing scenario work, commissioned to help understand the possible futures communities will face as we move from pandemic to recovery.  Some of these scenarios are bleak, others hopeful, many challenging.

Central to all of them will be the need to rebuild and recover, moving on from the short-term management of a medical crisis to the long term task of reconstruction, after an economic and social shock unprecedented in peacetime.

And if the reaction to emerging from a world war a century ago was “never again”, you can see a similar spirit underpinning the Government’s plans for recovery from COVID-19. From our health service to our supply chains to the wider economy, the building of a new resilient nation, capable of managing future shocks, sits at the heart of national planning for economic and societal bounce back.  And we’re not just seeing that in the UK – last month the OECD published its own recommendations on building in resilience to future systemic shocks in a post-COVID world.

If resilience is going to be at the heart of a lot of conversations about where we go next, you can see why.

The UK is only three months into the COVID-19 crisis, and already many of the systems we rely on have been exposed as far more fragile than we thought.

Whilst our supermarkets have performed incredibly over recent weeks, ensuring food in our cupboards and toilet paper in our bathrooms, our wider food system is still facing incredible pressures. Farming in the UK is highly dependent on labour from overseas, particularly at harvest time for fruit and vegetables. We also import almost half of the food we eat, and with supply chains designed for maximum efficiency and just-in-time delivery.  For a few desperate days, panic buying and a surge in demand left supermarket shelves empty of key items like bread, milk and tinned food.

The same could be said for many other areas: our strategic industrial capacity – leaving us reliant on competing for PPE from abroad rather than manufacture at home; our digital infrastructure; social care systems, particularly support for the elderly and those suffering with mental ill-health have all been shown wanting.  And at the same time as we dealt with the crisis in our care homes, internationally we saw oil prices swinging wildly as storage capacity ran out across the globe.

Whilst we appear to be over the immediate worst of the medical emergency, the consequences of the crisis have many more years to play out.  With a quarter of the nation on furlough, and many businesses on the point of failure despite the Government’s generous support packages, the economic ramifications of COVID are only just beginning to be felt and the longer term social and political consequences, though impossible to predict, will be profound.

We’ve also seen the vulnerability of too many of individuals and households getting by with minimal savings and precarious employment.  But if too many in this country are already forced to rely on foodbanks – many of which had to rapidly transform to community volunteer-distributed food provision as lockdown was implemented – we can expect even more need at the end of this crisis as the furlough schemes wind down and the jobs that disappeared with COVID-19 don’t come back anytime soon.

And the ripple effects of the coronavirus crisis may be playing out just as the climate crisis intensifies.  Further shocks as great or greater in scale as COVID-19 may lie in wait in the near future.

Our country has been tested by COVID-19 and has been shown to be brittle. We must learn from the results and increase our resilience as a matter of urgency.

What exactly resilience is, where the country’s weaknesses and strengths lie, and, most importantly, what can be done to enhance resilience remains an area under-explored in recent years. This is unsurprising. Policy debate for many years has focused on private sector competitiveness and public sector efficiency. Resilience has rarely been discussed outside of public health, environment and community development circles. Work on economic resilience has been almost entirely concerned with the speed at which the economy can return to growth following a financial crisis such as in 2008.

As we start to rebuild after COVID, there is a risk that the debate will centre entirely on the most tangible measures such as NHS capacity, physical infrastructure and private sector debt and overlook the less tangible but equally important factors that have defined our response to crisis.

We know from our work with Big Local that when the crisis first struck, and well before national and local government mobilised, it was local communities who were often the first responders, providing vital help and support to vulnerable people, and putting in place support networks and services.   But we also know that the infrastructure that supports that action – the places where people meet, and the often small community based organisations that bring them together are themselves fragile and under resourced.  And also that the lack of those assets are associated with a whole range of other impacts on communities that increase their own vulnerability to shock events.

The Government is right to place resilience at the heart of its plans for the future.  As a nation we need the shared capacity to both thrive and to withstand shocks. But to achieve that, we need to do more than simply reinforcing old systems, to address the fragility recent weeks have exposed.

We need to take a wider view of how we can build a more resilient Britain.

One that embraces health, the economy, manufacturing, transport, community, energy and food.  And that recognises the links and dependencies between them. We may need new approaches, to rebuild, renew and regenerate. It is a new agenda for a decade of transformational change.