It’s nine months since I wrote of the profound changes taking place in communities, in everyday human behaviour and in public and private thinking, all provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 12 months since the first lockdown was announced, and as the ‘crocus[es] of hope poke through the frost’ [our PM] it would seem appropriate to review progress, by asking the following questions:
1. Is there a ‘new normal’ yet emerging?
2. What are the positives (of a long-term nature) that are now appearing from this crisis?
3. Is it possible to ‘build back better’ and construct a vision of a fair (‘levelled up’) society that should work for all its members, and in particular the more disadvantaged families and individuals?
A NEW NORMAL?
Who really wants to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic? I would contend that if there is anyone so minded, he or she should look about themselves a little more thoughtfully. While there are no physical bomb craters as seen in 1945, it is clear that there are legions of mental, physical and social scars to be seen in a wounded nation, where Government has struggled to provide confident (and competent) leadership, where the plight of the disadvantaged, already exposed before the pandemic, has been horribly exposed, and where hopes for the future are scarce and thin.
‘Normality’ is probably a useless concept: so I propose that we ditch it, and accept that change, already thrust upon us from so many directions (climate change, Brexit, financial crises, disease: to name but four!) is endemic and indeed inevitable and necessary: change, indeed, is normal. And in doing so, let us ask ourselves:
· What have we managed without during lockdown?
· What have we most missed?
· What can we now do without, or even discard?
· What do we most want to treasure and retain?
· How can we achieve a proper sense of community, both locally and nationally, where the health and wellbeing of us all is the responsibility of us all?
My earlier paper has some of the answers*, many of which have entered into national conversation, and which I would summarise as follows, but with important and major additions:
1. We don’t need to travel miles to shop when delivery systems for most items work well: more local shopping for everyday items and locally produced food, backed up by delivery hubs located near or as part of local (village-type) stores.
2. We may need also to reconsider our holiday plans, especially if they involve flying overseas. And less car use, more use of public transport, car shares etc.
3. Working from home should be considered normal, and while there will be benefits from occasional visits to an office, I would expect improving technology and universal access to broadband to make us more comfortable in doing this. Villages/communities could also create shared office spaces within walking distance of home.
4. Towns and villages should be for living in, not just for going home to sleep in. We need to take our courage in both hands and redesign our existing towns with that principle in mind.
5. The obvious success of volunteering in these difficult times needs to be capitalised upon: volunteering should be normal, and children should be introduced to it at an early age. The concept of street wardens, who would know enough about their neighbours to be able to weigh in with help and advice when needed, could be further explored.
CHANGES IN GOVERNANCE FOR THE GOOD OF ALL: WHERE DO WE BELONG?
Whatever one’s political persuasion, it is hard to argue that the UK government has covered itself in glory in its handling of the time of Covid-19. It is also hard to argue with the reality of the problem faced by local government, with councils up and down the land progressively denuded of the resources required to keep services going for their local populations. Against that background, it was perhaps inevitable that the UK government should try to manage the response to the pandemic from a central base. That reality in turn has led to inefficiencies in the public health response, where local public health departments have been largely side-lined in the effort to launch a national test, trace and isolate system of control. Many prominent national figures, especially clinicians, have criticised the by-passing of local expertise in both primary care and public health. There has been a strong feeling that we could have managed this better down here!
Cornwall is better placed than many parts of the country to organise itself, since county boundaries ensure isolation west of the Tamar with a unitary authority based in Truro. The Cameron government took tentative steps towards increasing autonomy for the county, but this has not been followed through with any conviction, and particularly without adequate resources to manage its own affairs. More recently, local personnel have cooperated to organise the roll-out of the Covid vaccines, with great success.
My plea therefore is: let’s hear it for localism! Localism is not the opposite of national identity, but rather is a strong part of it: I identify with my community in Truro; Truro is very much a part of Cornwall; Cornwall remains a loyal part of England (in most eyes, anyway); England (perhaps a rather more nebulous concept!) remains part of the UK; and (pace ardent Brexiteers) the UK remains hitched to Europe. So I shall shout out for Truro, Cornwall, England, the UK and indeed Europe.
And I would like to invest resource and my civic pride locally, to improve the status of Truro and Cornwall in this nation. At the moment I feel that Cornwall, which contains many of the most deprived areas in the whole of the UK, depends on hand-outs from a remote central government, just to keep itself going. If I lived in France, I would find that over 70% of the revenue needed to run local services in, for example, Rennes would be raised locally. In Cornwall that amount is 25%. The difference in my ability to influence how that money is spent is equally disproportionate, and equally central government cuts are disproportionately likely to put a strain on local services. Visiting French towns and villages has constantly reminded me of how civic pride works in places where there is more local control: well maintained local infrastructure, general tidiness and a feeling of local identity and cohesiveness which is (in my view) lacking this side of the Channel.
Ambition for the future is a necessary ingredient of local development and is probably only apparent in places where civic pride is apparent: I was struck recently by the plan for Stockton-on-Tees, which intends to demolish central shopping centres and replace them with a vast open space next the river, with associated leisure facilities to make the best use of the waterside location. Hugely popular locally – come on Truro and others! And along with civic pride go voluntary activities to clean up and allow us to take pride in our environment. And I would add that xenophobia is an unattractive trait, whether it is expressed locally, nationally or internationally: so I would want to be sure that any move towards more local autonomy is balanced by a clear commitment to the nation we inhabit – for Cornwall has, as we know, a great deal to contribute, especially in the Green Recovery which we hope the UK government will take seriously.
We must remember that Cornwall has so much to contribute to the nation:
· Unique coastline and beaches as an attraction for tourists
· Opportunity for healthy living in the outdoor environment
· Green energy sources in wind power, tidal power, hot rocks, and possibly lithium deposits
· A fishing fleet which has provided diverse foods to the nation’s plates, and now (through no fault of its own) finds itself in difficulty
· Many people with imagination and resourcefulness, whose voices and ideas need to be heard.
…and the list goes on. It is surely time to raise the question of how one might raise the resources that Cornwall needs , to allow it to ‘level up’ and support itself. The question of a tourist tax has been mentioned in the past, and now is surely the time to explore this again. In 2021 we expect an even bigger influx of visitors than usual, because of the pandemic restricting overseas holidays. This would provide a much needed source of revenue, and could help fire up the Cornish economy at this critical time. Let discussion on this topic begin now!
And while on governance: national governments, whether or not we voted them into office ourselves, need to be accessible and visible for the good of democracy. Did anyone (apart from the arch-traditionalist leader of the House) really miss the House of Commons, or more particularly the circus with performing clowns that represents Prime Minister’s questions on a Wednesday? Much parliamentary business can be, and has been, conducted via Zoom; and no doubt Cornwall Council has found that many members have not greatly missed visits to the brutalist piece of architecture that is County Hall. Is there any unanswerable reason why
Government departments, and indeed Parliament itself, should be located in Westminster? Far-flung constituencies might welcome a sitting in Exeter (for example), connected to ministers and other members via Zoom. Billions of pounds earmarked for the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster might be saved, while Parliament is brought closer to the people.
PERSONAL NEEDS: WHAT ARE THEY? HOW CAN WE PRESERVE THEM?
1. An adequate, secure and affordable home
2. Adequate income to purchase life’s necessities
3. Access to well-resourced, inter-connected support health and social care services for all ages [including social prescribing and the services which it directs towards]
4. Personal security in the public space
All obvious and incontrovertible. They go along with these civic responsibilities:
1. Are we aware of local people in need, or those at risk from absence of the above?
2. Are we aware of and able to make contact with support services who can help them if needed? Do we have a clear line to local authority?
3. Do we take our share of responsibility for preserving the public space?
In summary, we need to recognise the shape and extent of the communities in which we exist, and balance our own contribution to those communities against what the communities might give to us. While the pandemic has evoked a strong community response from many people, there are many who have been affected by illness, bereavement and isolation, and who may well feel left behind by too rapid a return to ‘normality’. Duchy Health Charity will, we hope, be an important engine of change, in the following ways:
· By contributing loudly and frequently (as we are here) to debate on the future direction, shape and status of the statutory and voluntary services which society depends upon
· By continuing to support the many charitable activities which both supplement those statutory efforts and fill some of the holes in provision
· By fostering activity, particularly among the younger population, which promotes an enhanced sense of belonging – to our towns and villages, to Cornwall, to our nation.
At the end of World War II, the UK rebuilt itself; its society, its infrastructure, its public services were all refashioned in the wake of a national disaster, in the direction led by the remarkable report of Sir William Beveridge. In a timely piece of reporting, the British Academy has recently called for a rebuilding of similar aspiration and size. It was commissioned by the government’s Office for Science, and must be required reading for all, both nationally and locally. You can find it at https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/publications/covid-decade-understanding-the-long-term-societal-impacts-of-covid-19/, and I can do no better than direct readers towards it. There will be many obstacles, in the shape of vested interests, monopolistic corporations, autocratic leaders, and perhaps a glass-half-empty attitude in an emotionally exhausted post-Covid population. But radical change there has to be!
And for Cornwall, a proud county with much to offer the nation and the world, it is time to shout loud and often for what we can offer, but also for what we require from our national and local leaders to make it possible for all of us to prosper, all of us to have access to (and contribute our own resources to) health and social care, and for all of us to feel we have an equal stake in the future.