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Local communities across Britain need to be given a bigger say in the re-shaping of public policy as the country recovers from the COVID pandemic. This was the consensus expressed at a digital event organised by Big Tent Ideas Festival in partnership with Local Trust and Chaired by of Sheffield Hallam University.

George Freeman Mid Norfolk MP and founder of the festival opened the discussion by highlighting that the past few months have shown the value of community-led initiatives in finding creative solutions to issues facing the country throughout lockdown.

“In this crisis, the Government has had to rely on local communities and, boy, have they rallied!”

Freeman argued that there is something inherently effective in having social initiatives be led by people rather than the Government: “We have to accept that quite a lot of Government projects don’t work.”

“In my own county of Norfolk, there are many people who, if they had a chance to do the task better than the state is able to, they very much would like to.”

Suzanne Halliwell, who runs a Local Trust funded programme, Big Local Whitley Bay, has spent years organising community-led initiatives in the North Eastern coastal town. Throughout lockdown, she has helped fund initiatives that have benefitted the most vulnerable people in her community, with one example being the provision of more than 2,000 meals for vulnerable people without access to proper kitchen facilities where they were self-isolating.  

Halliwell highlighted that many issues that have come to the fore during lockdown are not new and will likely persist, urging authorities to engage with charities and local groups imminently.

“COVID-19 has created a window of opportunity for local communities as it has created good will. They really need to seize the initiative and recognise this won’t last forever. We must open up dialogue with communities and local people.”

“As we’ve learned from Marcus Rashford, food poverty was there before and will continue to be an issue as we get out of COVID.”

Paul Smith, Bristol City Councillor, was pessimistic about any Government pushing for decentralisation of social policy:

“Whatever the colour of the national Government, they tend to take power to the centre.”

“If post-COVID just means cutting services to death, then all the goodwill in the world will evaporate quickly. We must instead deal with the financial blackholes in the councils.”

When returning to his childhood community after University, Smith realised how public funds simply weren’t reaching the area, saying “It wasn’t there – nothing was being systematically funded year on year.”

Smith went on to criticise the way in which many councils have been approaching enhancing the quality of life of their residents:

“It used to be a lot of investment going to the people, now it means knocking down some council housing, moving people out of the area and building some new fancy flats.”

Instead, he promotes a social housing model where developments are structured more like housing associations:

“Community led housing development can be something owned by working class community and generate income for it.”

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