Report from the DevoConnect COVID-19 Webinar: Response, Impact, Recovery 23rd April 2020 Click here to watch the COVID-19 Webinar on our DevoConnect YouTube channel.
At the DevoConnect COVID-19 webinar Andy Burnham, Greater Manchester Mayor, called for a nationwide campaign for national recovery. He coined the phrase we need to “Build Back Better”. He said that we must not lose sight of the few benefits of lockdown such as cleaner air, a better work-life balance and a greater emphasis on exercise including cycling and walking, but warned that the case for levelling-up will need to be re-made given the weakest parts of the economy will be hit hardest by the recession. He backed the TUC’s proposal for a National Council for Reconstruction and Recovery which would include city region and local authority leaders.
Cllr Judith Blake, Leeds Council Leader and Chair of Core Cities UK, added that the public’s recognition of who are essential and key workers in our society must not be lost. The vital role played by local authorities must be respected and rewarded moving forward. She said it was clear that the COVID-19 crisis emphasised the huge impact 10 years of austerity had made on public services, meaning the UK was not well prepared for the pandemic: Cllr Judith Blake warned, “there cannot be a return to more austerity.”
Both leaders stressed that the Government’s response to COVID-19 could be so much better if local government and combined authorities were seen by Government as genuine partners and part of the solution. Numerous examples were given where there had been no consultation, including the mis-siting of the Manchester testing centre and the failure to use local authority procurement for PPE. The Government need to listen regional and local leaders outside London, hear about the impact and response and they should be invited to COBRA meetings.
Andy Burnham said: “it is understandable that in a national emergency a highly centralised approach is taken but the Government could have done better. Rather than lessons learnt, there is a real danger that the recovery will be similarly top-down which would be a huge mistake. The recovery must be a collaborative and inclusive effort that draws on the strengths of all parts of the country, all political parties and all sectors of the economy.”
Cllr Judith Blake said the impact of lockdown is yet to be fully known but already the cost to Leeds was estimated at £130million. That had not stopped the Council providing £99million of support to local businesses and organising 8,000 volunteers to support the vulnerable and isolated. She also paid tribute to the often unsung but essential public service workers: for example, the bin men, care workers and those working in cemeteries and crematoria.
In response to a question on the impact of COVID-19 on transport infrastructure investment, Andy Burnham said the issue of HS2 should not be re-opened. Commitments and promised investment must happen. Emphasising the job creation aspects of the project, he said HS2 was still required for the North.
With so many people living and working from home in the lockdown, people were now acutely aware of the connection between their home and their health and wellbeing. Andy Burnham called for a massive commitment to retrofitting housing. This, he said was essential if we are to deliver carbon neutral, decent and healthy homes and create thousands of jobs.
At the virtual meeting organised by DevoConnect there were also calls for more digital investment, improved cycling and walking infrastructure, further consideration of health devolution and recognition of the critical role for universities in co-production. A straw poll showed that 98% of participants thought the Government could not deliver the great recovery alone and 86% said that the impact of COVID-19, and the response nationally, locally and at city region level, strengthened the case for further devolution.
Cllr Judith Blake made plea for an inclusive recovery. Inclusive growth will make all the difference and could combat the inequality, which she said, “we know will rise”. She concluded, “local government, including core cities and their combined authorities, must be at the table to influence the recovery”. Andy Burnham said the COVID-19 crisis provides us with a huge opportunity to press the reset button, he said we need a “reset moment” to safeguard clean air, transform digital infrastructure, invest in our key workers, and for the country to come together and Build Back Better.