The government is paying the wages of 10 million people. Our freedom to associate has been temporarily suspended. All weddings are cancelled. Every single restaurant and pub in the country has been closed. The aviation sector is grounded. All this as part of a collective national effort to tackle a global pandemic, symbolised by almost a million people signing up to be NHS volunteers.
To most people before COVID-19, this would have seemed like a far-fetched future scenario, yet it is our current reality.
And we are only at the early stages of the impact of the pandemic. The economic consequences are just now coming into view and may be long-lived, and we may face shifts in our values, our culture and politics that reverberate down the generations.
Any organisation with long-term goals now needs to step back and reconsider how their goals can be achieved in radically changed circumstances. For Local Trust, our Big Local programme has another six years to run. Big Local partnerships across England are already changing how they work, often playing a central role in the local response to the emergency. We need to think again how we can work with and support them in being powerful agents of change in their localities.
Beyond the Big Local programme, Local Trust is advocating for a structural change in our economy, society and politics, which leads to greater devolution of power, with local people and communities having more control over resources and decision making. Thanks to COVID-19, we know we’re going to need to work differently to achieve this.
To think through the changes we need to make, it makes sense first to try to understand the new landscape, even as it is still unfolding. To help answer that question, we asked Alex Evans and David Steven, founders of the Long Crisis Network, to develop some scenarios, each describing a different future that could emerge from the events happening around us now.
The four scenarios, named Our COVID Future: The Long Crisis Scenarios, are radically different from each other and have different implications for communities. They are based on different levels of polarisation and collective action, and on whether decision making and power are centralised or distributed and named to reflect this.
The monolithic state described in Big Mother leaves little room for communities, which feel artificial and manufactured, more a focus for ritual and celebration than social and political organising.
In The Rise of the Oligarchs the pandemic accelerates the rise of populism and crony-capitalism, sapping the vigour and wealth from communities and increasing inequality.
Fragile Resilient explores a future lurching from crisis to crisis, with communities left to sink or swim based on the assets and skills they have to hand.
And Winning Ugly sees the link between communities, local government and the private sector at the heart of a transformed state.
It may be that none of these scenarios emerge – certainly not exactly in the way described – and there are of course other futures available. But all seem possible and their roots can all be seen in the events around us.
Each of them might suggest a different approach for Local Trust. For example, if we move towards a fragmented and informal world a bit like that described in Fragile Resilient, then community ownership of local assets, and skills of leadership, creativity and enterprise, become even more important, and we must work even more urgently now to ‘level up’ those communities lacking in those assets and resources, regardless of any support that might be coming from the centre.
Alternatively, in Big Mother, where the centralised state is dominant, building a broad-based coalition with national organisations to make the case for more power and control at a community level is key.
Meanwhile, it looks like a strong collaborative relationship between communities, local organisations, and councils would be critical in several of the scenarios.
For Local Trust, for our partners, for communities and for civil society as a whole, these scenarios lift us above the mess and seeming chaos of now and help us notice the patterns and connections that are forming and shifting as we move into the future. They can steer us beyond the false dichotomy of hopes and fears and challenge deep-rooted assumptions, including the desire that, sooner or later, things will flip back to pre-COVID normality.
They sensitise us to uncertainty and change and stimulate the imagination – which is what we need oodles of, if we are to respond creatively to this crisis.
As we think about the long-term implications for local communities, we would like to work with partners within and beyond civil society to bring in different perspectives and explore how we can work together to common goals. And we hope that others will find them useful and will share their reflections on how, in this time of rapid and unpredictable change, we can act to strengthen communities in a way that prepares people to thrive, whatever the future holds.