The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of local communities and public services. If the market is left to its own devices, chaos ensues. State intervention is evidently needed, much to the surprise of the Tories. Where Labour is in power locally, the party can show how to save lives and livelihoods where the government has failed to act. Here are six suggestions to get us started.
1) Lead by example as an employer.
Collectively, councils employ over two million workers. If we were a single employer, we would be the biggest by a long way. Local authorities must be the gold standard for workers’ rights during the crisis. Whether employed directly or outsourced, council workers must see no loss of earnings if affected by sickness, isolation or disruption to service. Adequate safety precautions should be in place for all.
2) Halt council payments that residents cannot afford.
Council tax and rent make up a significant portion of many households’ monthly outgoings. As people lose their jobs or incomes fall, these bills may become painful. The government has already committed to suspending evictions, but can councils go further? Local authorities could let those who need it freeze their council tax and council rent payments. This would be expensive but, even after a decade of Tory austerity, councils can shoulder the burden better than our lowest-paid residents.
3) Turn schools into community hubs.
From next week, most schools will only teach a fraction of their usual number. All but the most vulnerable, and the children of key workers – such as NHS workers and delivery drivers – will stay at home. Councils can turn these schools into community hubs. The school kitchens can continue to provide food for the four million children who rely on free school meals.
The healthy meals could be offered to others who need them, too, incorporating them into the ‘meals on wheels’ services of councils. We need to support isolated older people to become better connected online, and a training service could make use of school premises and equipment. Parts of schools could even be cordoned off and used as testing centres.
4) Coordinate and support mutual aid groups.
The crisis has brought out the best in people. ‘Mutual aid’ groups on Facebook and WhatsApp have sprung up across the country. Here, local people can support one another during self-isolation and quarantine. But impromptu volunteer-groups may lack resources. Councils must not stifle the vibrancy of these groups, but we can offer support by producing a directory of different groups with a simple but safe registration process, issuing safeguarding guidance, or even just providing groups with free access to printing.
5) Repurpose buildings for emergency housing.
Hotels and offices lie empty, while people sleep on the street. The extent of homelessness was a disgrace before the pandemic, but now the public health risks are enormous. Councils can already repurpose buildings in our own control, but we should also demand from government greater powers to temporarily requisition unused buildings in private ownership.
6) Demand more funding and greater powers.
In fact, councils should demand a whole range of new powers, and funding to support them. Who will enforce the moratorium on evictions in private rented housing? The Tories have realised – far too late – that it is reckless to leave everything to the market. State intervention is a necessity.
In many areas, like housing, social care or some parts of public health, local government should be making these interventions. It may become necessary for the state to coordinate and direct distribution of food to some sections of the population – councils should be empowered to do this.