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The Mirror And The Purse Strings

We see things not as they are, but as we are. In the post-mortem that will follow the pandemic about what our government should have done differently, we have an opportunity to see things as they should be: to look beyond the balance between government interventions and civil liberties, and consider the fundamental role of government in facing such crises. No doubt the slow response of government was foreshadowed by cuts to the NHS and public services. But let’s not waste our breath over old, partisan debates about ownership and the size of the state. When facing a crisis that requires urgent action, the more acute question is how can we move faster and what should government enable? Over a decade ago, Tim O’Reilly proposed that we look at government as a platform: as a convener and an enabler, rather than the first mover of civic action. To reimagine government as a “vehicle for co-ordinating the collective action of citizens”. We have seen first hand the desperate need to be more flexible and faster in facing a widespread crisis. In grasping control, our government should take more than a hard look in the mirror before deciding how and where to spend our money, so that collectively we will be better prepared and more agile for what lies ahead. We are still living through the emergency phase of the coronavirus pandemic, and the government’s focus is rightly on delivering essential healthcare and frontline services, and supporting households and businesses that have lost their sources of income during the lockdown. When we emerge from hibernation, the government will need to provide yet more stimulus packages – to prevent a recession becoming a depression. Before, Britain was on course for a budget deficit of £55bn; now, we are looking at £200bn. At a stroke, austerity has been rejected and the fiscal landscape transformed. This crisis has happened on top of the climate crisis, an emissions curve that has not flattened beyond coal. In helping the economy recover from the financial crisis in 2008-2010, LSE’s Nick Robins has estimated that 15% of the government’s fiscal stimulus was invested in eco-initiatives, such as home energy efficiency measures. Why should we expect more post-COVID? Public concern over climate breakdown is now at an all-time high. Over two-thirds of local councils have declared a climate emergency. The case for a Green New Deal that matches the scale of the challenge is much stronger. Everything we do to make the stimulus package greener will address both economic and climate crises at once. Whitehall’s instinct is to look for grand solutions with big institutions and large corporations to deliver them. Planned spending on the “biggest road-building program since the Romans” illustrates our backwards perspective. Ditto HS2 over local rail services or attempting to expand Heathrow over legally binding reductions in carbon emissions. What makes such big ideas look like ancient history is that we need to build something else entirely: community resilience. Coronavirus is a catalyst for further decentralisation, for strengthening local centres so that they are better equipped to look after their local populations; for bringing services within arm’s reach to avoid travelling long distances; for reviving the local high street and public places so people can support with each other where they live. Taking climate action means building community resilience. Agile, real time responsiveness to a crisis is anathema to centralised bureaucracy and departmental silos. We are on the cusp of building something new instead of rebuilding something old. If government is a platform and an enabler to become more resilient, then it is up to us to lead locally with national policies and funding in support.

In seeing where we are, we see where things should be.

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