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It’s time for a radical rebalancing

Almost a month on from its publication, Steve Wyler, author of Community responses in times of crisis, reflects on what the COVID-19 pandemic means for communities and how we support them.

When I wrote my essay for Local Trust on community responses to crisis, it was April. Already it is the end of May, and it seems that in some ways a lot has changed, and in other ways not at all.

In April I wrote that ‘great national calamities usually, maybe always, bear down most heavily on the poorest, and those who find themselves on the margins of society.’ A month on, and we now have authoritative evidence that this has indeed been the case. The Office for National Statistics has revealed that the death rate for people in the most deprived areas is twice that of people in the most affluent areas, and for black people twice that of white people.

The idea that ‘we are all in this together’ is simply wrong.  One storm, yes, but as many people are now pointing out, we are in different boats.

A privileged few are in luxury yachts, some in boats that are comfortable and safe enough, but others in leaking rust buckets, and some have no boats at all.

So, I’d like to share two further reflections, adding to those I have already made in the concluding sections of my essay.

The first is a very simple one, but one which seems to me to have profound consequences. We must stop, once and for all, talking about ‘vulnerable’ people.

I know that such talk is usually driven by sympathy, even compassion. It is also very familiar, and ‘help for the most vulnerable’ has been a recurrent theme in disaster responses in the past. But nevertheless it is damaging.  It assumes that there is a class of people who are not us, who can only be defined as passive objects of our help, who are people we do things for, or worse still, do things to. This overlooks a basic truth which is obvious and evident to every community volunteer and activist I spoke to when I was researching my essay:

That everyone who needs help also has the possibility of helping others in some way, of making a contribution on their own terms, of adding value to the lives of people around them.

When we disallow that possibility we make things worse, not better. And when we institutionalise the notion of vulnerability in our practices of commissioning, fundraising, organisational planning, target setting and in the stories we tell, we are condemning the people we work with to a second-rate life.

My second reflection is about how communities look up to national government, and how government looks down to communities. 

It strikes me that at a time of crisis people look up to their national leaders hoping and expecting the best, but too often getting the worst. So, in this crisis, I think many people were surprised and impressed when the government set aside partisan ideology to provide a massive state bail-out for employees and small businesses, and relaxed some of the most punitive Universal Credit rules.

But in other respects it feels like a depressingly familiar picture. I think of the government failures to respond quickly at the outset, to provide protective equipment for NHS staff and carers, to establish an effective test, track and trace programme; as well as the neglect of our care homes, which I will find especially hard to forgive or forget. I imagine everyone has been as bewildered as me by the confusing and chaotic public safety messages, intended to help us emerge from lock-down. Even a scheme to provide food vouchers for families with children eligible for free school meals was mismanaged. Governments, it seems, are simply not very good at this kind of thing. Too often we are left disappointed.

The reverse, it seems to me, is true about communities.

Those who sit above, in government or in other positions of authority or power, even sometimes in the social sector, look down at our communities expecting the worst, but often end up getting the best.

By and large that is exactly what has happened in this crisis. There was national concern at the outset about the risk of public disorder, of rioting even. But across all our communities the overwhelming majority of people have respected the restrictions on their liberties and obeyed the social distancing advice. People in huge numbers have stepped forward to volunteer, and as I described in my essay the neighbourhood-level responses have been truly impressive, from street-by-street mutual aid groups, to rapid and efficient community-led action, ‘organised but not professionalised’ as someone said recently. And these have become familiar stories, not exceptional.

Our experience over the recent months indicates, it seems to me, the need for a radical re-balancing. Yes, there are some things, necessary ones, which can only be done at scale by national government.

But there are many more that can be done better locally, sometimes at micro-neighbourhood level, and significant and sustained investment in this is long overdue.

Local authorities, of course, can occupy an important intermediary position, but only if they can find a way to liberate themselves from the stultifying command-and-control practices that have so bedevilled national government, and which, for so long, they have aped.

A shift across society in favour of community, and from the national to the local, feels like the makings of a hopeful agenda, something truly worthwhile to come out of this crisis. Such a shift would, I believe, release the immense and long-neglected renewable energy of families, friends, neighbours and citizens, and perhaps might help us build a somewhat fairer society, one where we are more appreciative of one another. But to bring about a radical shift of this order will require more than hope. It will require a sustained and serious effort at many levels, by many organisations working in combination. Something for Local Trust to play a part in, perhaps?

Steve Wyler is an independent consultant, researcher and writer in the social sector. He also co-convenes A Better Way. From 2000 to 2014, he was CEO of Locality, a national network of community organisations dedicated to community enterprise, community ownership and social change.