Rob Day, Policy Assistant at Local Trust, reflects on the first session of the new Policy and Advocacy Panel.
When you start talking about policy, people tend to switch off. Policy is seen as something created by men in suits in London and rolled out across the country, often after a big announcement by the Prime Minister or the Chancellor. Policy is not something that ordinary people discuss, decide and implement.
Some might say that this is the best way to administer change and ensure that everyone prospers. After all, politicians are elected to represent the people and can rely on the best and the brightest civil servants and political advisors. Surely these people must know best how to run the country and solve the problems that we face?
The Big Local programme challenges this assumption. The programme, which has given £1.1m each to 150 neighbourhoods across the country to spend as they wish over 10-15 years, has shown that residents are able to come together and solve the long-term structural problems in their area using expertise and deep knowledge based on years of lived experience.
Across the country, Big Local partnerships have tackled the youth mental health crisis, built new homes, re-invigorated depleted high streets, built solar farms and helped to reignite a sense of community pride. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Big Local areas have shown incredible resilience, transforming their services immediately to support the most vulnerable residents throughout lockdown.
These outcomes are not flukes. They are the result of strategic thinking and complex problem solving by residents who have been given the funding, time and support to develop solutions to the big issues in their communities.
To access and enable the sharing of this knowledge and experience, Local Trust decided to set up a Policy and Advocacy Panel earlier this year. The aim of the panel is to provide a forum for Big Local residents to discuss issues in their areas, influence Local Trust’s policy and advocacy work whilst developing the network and skills to successfully advocate for change themselves, at a local or national level.
On Thursday 2 July, eighteen Panel members met on Zoom for the first time to discuss what the government should do to support communities, particularly communities that tend to describe themselves as ‘left behind’ or forgotten, during the recovery from COVID 19.
Participants were divided into three groups and asked to come back with their top three priorities for government. Both mental and physical health and digital poverty and exclusion were identified as the two most pressing issues that communities are facing due to COVID-19.
Concerns around mental and physical health focused on both the direct threat of COVID-19 and the stress associated with it as well as anxiety about increased worklessness and financial hardship.
It was noted that the physical health of some of the most clinically vulnerable residents had worsened as a result of the long lockdown. Participants felt that children would struggle to re-adapt to anything resembling a normal routine, many having been left to themselves for the past few months.
The biggest concern was around how the rapid changes to family’s economic fortunes would affect mental health. It was mentioned that people would be forced to rely on welfare, many for the first time in their lives.
There will be a lot of shame wrapped up in this – people’s pride is going to be effected by having to go to a food bank for the first time.”
The need to overcome the digital divide was highlighted. Too many residents are having difficulties because they cannot access the internet. This means that they are unable to stay connected with friends and family, access online learning or government updates about COVID-safety. It was also noted that many families only have access to a mobile phone. On a pay-as-you-go sim, this often meant a choice between dinner or data.
These two urgent priorities fed into the rest of the discussion, which identified rising crime, support for education, vulnerable people and social security as key issues.
Panellists commended the way that many local authorities had come to trust and rely upon community groups to prevent the most vulnerable residents falling through the cracks during COVID-19. They hoped that this would represent a step change in the way in which local government values community groups.
During the crisis Big Local areas have shown their ability to tackle problems in a way that is highly responsive to the needs of their communities. They’ve coordinated door-knocking and information distribution services locally to inform residents and have worked to reassure those that have become too anxious to leave their house at all. They have distributed food in discrete ways so as not to hurt the pride of residents forced to ask for support for the first time.
One Panel member mentioned that, in order to help the economy, the Government should develop a voucher scheme for residents to redeem in local shops. The same idea was touted by the Resolution Foundation a few days later.
The solutions needed to make communities more resilient and to ‘build back better’ after COVID-19 are already being developed and delivered on a micro-scale in neighbourhoods across England. People have the ability to tackle the most challenging issues that we face, and the experience to understand what can work on a national scale to improve the prospects of other neighbourhoods like theirs. Policy does not need to be thought up in London, it should be distilled from the ‘lived experience’ of people across the country.
If you are part of Big Local or Creative Civic Change and would like to get involved with Local Trust’s Policy and Advocacy Panel, please contact Rob Day at Rob.Day@localtrust.org.uk