Tony Armstrong: How keeping it local can help the Covid recovery

... we are witnessing a “community moment”, with growing trust and understanding from councils of the work of local community organisations.

Tony Armstrong

CEO, Locality

Before the pandemic, there was real evidence of a new approach taking hold in local government. Locality spent a large part of the last decade campaigning for councils to Keep it Local: turning the tide on mega outsourcing  and instead building long-term partnerships with local community organisations.

Making this shift isn’t easy and requires determined transformation of culture and procedure. But the learning we have published this week from our Keep it Local Network – in partnership with Lloyds Bank Foundation – shows the huge progress many councils are making.

Our report centres on Bradford and Bristol, our two Keep it Local pilot areas, committed to our Keep it Local principles, whom we’ve been providing practical support to develop new ways of working.

In both places, adult social care has been a main focus. There is a pressing need for innovative new solutions – both to raise the quality of service and to drive down budget pressures. Community organisations have a distinctive role to play but it’s been historically underplayed.

Bristol City Council are seeking to harness this transformative potential via the ‘Make it Local’ pilot project. Jointly-funded and delivered with Power to Change, it’s seeking to support a group of four community businesses and three equalities organisations to test and develop new community-based approaches to social care to shape the longer-term social care plans for the city.

Alongside adult social care, procurement reform has been another critical area of work. Procurement has so often been the bureaucratic blocker; but we are seeing how, at its most ambitious, it can be central to an authority’s place shaping approach – especially when it works hand in hand with commissioning.

In Bradford we have been working with the council’s Head of Procurement to do this and rethink the culture in his team. Part of this has been the development of a new ‘pre-market engagement guide’ laying out principles for procurement of and engagement with local organisations and aims to set a direction to free up council officers.

All this work was happening before the coronavirus crisis transformed our lives in unimaginable ways. But working with Bradford and Bristol and the other members of our Keep it Local Network, we have seen how the principles and approach are more important than ever. Indeed we are witnessing a “community moment”, with growing trust and understanding from councils of the work of local community organisations.

So how can councils harness this and make Keep it Local the fulcrum of their recovery strategies? We think there are three main buckets of activity.

The first is to “create collaborative public services that unlock community power”. This involves a change in how councils and other local commissioners fund local services, away from procuring specific outcomes and towards taking a long-term investment approach. So in practice this might mean accelerating the integration of services and budgets; piloting and embedding neighbourhood-based approaches to service delivery; or embedding the rapid cultural and procedural change seen during the crisis.

Second, councils can “support a community-powered economic recovery”. Community organisations play a vital role in creating resilient local economies. Councils have big opportunities to make this a key plank of their local recoveries, by enabling local organisations to tackle the jobs crisis, creating a step change in their asset transfer policies, or reimagining their high streets.

Third and finally, councils can “turn community spirit into community power”. We’ve all been overwhelmed by the community response to the pandemic, but this civic effort needs support to put down permanent roots. That’s why underpinning all of this other reform is a need to support local social infrastructure. Without this we risk losing the established networks and assets that have been vital to the early months of the crisis response – and risk allowing the community power that has brought our neighbourhoods together to dissipate.

We are still in the foothills of the coronavirus crisis, continuing to battle the public health crisis while we begin to chart our way through the economic crisis it is leaving in its wake. We will only get through it by working together – councils and communities, different areas learning from each other. We think we can do it if we Keep it Local.

Tony Armstrong is Chief Executive of Locality, the national membership network for community organisations. Read the new Keep it Local report and find out more about the Keep it Local Network.