Local Government and Pandemic Recovery

Introduction

Local government has performed important roles during the current COVID-19 Pandemic. Councils have been important in the distribution of government messages and health messages. Many council have also promoted kindness initiatives in their local area with some promoting their own kindness schemes with the viewof building and maintaining strong and resilient communities through the current crisis. It’s interesting that in Queensland the role of kindness support has been taken by the state government with the formation of a care army.

But what willbe the role of local government when we transition to a recovery phase?

It is accepted that we as humans are not designed to live in isolation for lengthy periods of time. There are concerns that there will be an increase in mental health issues arising from this period of lockdown in isolation. This combined with the anticipated economic recession/depression many countries are expected to experience will add to an increase in mental health issues.

Many economists and political analysts are anticipating that when we do come through this pandemic things will not be the same. Economic conditions will change, employment could be harder to find, poverty more rampant and communities will require rebuilding.

Let’s look quickly at a few strategies local government could put in place to ease the recovery impact on communities.

A Disaster Management Response

Local Government already has a major role to play in the management of natural disasters. Although the COVID-19 Pandemic is a health emergency it represents a crisis (disaster) to many individuals and their communities. Councils should treat the recovery from the pandemic in the same way they treat recovery from natural disasters. Some councils are already treating the pandemic in a similar way to a natural disaster. For example, the council for my area has established their information distribution and contact centre at the local disaster management centre. In recovery this approach will need to recover.

Similar to disaster recovery Councils will need to work in partnership with other prime local agencies in rebuilding community resilience and confidence. This would involve the convening of a disaster recovery type of interagency to plan the recovery and work with communities to rebuild with each agency being responsible for theircore role i.e. health would be responsible for health related issues; police would be responsible for law and order; welfare agencies for material needs of individuals and communities. Council would have a major role in ongoing maintenance of physical infrastructure, provision of ongoing employment and rebuilding community.

One immediate local government responsibility is in the building of resilience within their communities so that residents are in a better position to deal with the ongoing stress of a society in recovery and to be better prepared for the next emergency. In this, there is a major role for the implementation of an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach to build resilience. This would require dedicating resources towork alongside communities to identify their strengths and assets ad build on these assets to create a stronger and more connected community.

Citizens Not Customers

Residents and community are not customers. They are not purchasing a product from local government but they are citizens of a democratic society. They are not faceless numbers but people whowant to participate, take a role in their democracy. Communities want to be consulted, involved in decision making processes, they want a real role in building their communities. Councils will need to revisit their engagement processes and mechanisms to review how they engage with community and how they take on board the views of community. At the very least a council should have a range of community committees providing advice to council. There could be other mechanisms in place such as citizen juries, but at the very minimum there needs to be regular opportunities for community to contribute to the strategic and operational direction of the Council.

Community Development

Many Councils have a great asset in their Community Development and Community Service workers. Following a lengthy period of isolation, physical distancing or quarantine there will be a role for local government in rebuilding local communities.

During periods of lockdown we are isolated from each other. The times when we do go out for necessities or to exercise we are physically avoiding each other through fear of contagion. We are beginning to lose trust in each other and at risk of social capital breaking down. After three to six months of this type of behaviour many may find it difficult to reconnect with neighbours and with colleagues. Some will have maintained their contact with others through kindness networks or through virtual means such as video conferencing and social media. But, there will potentially be work to be performed to break down the barriers that isolation creates so we can once again meet together in public and private spaces, socially and physically connect once again. There will be further work to be done to ensure that vulnerable others are not left to remain in isolation.

Even before COVID-19 many of our neighbourhoods were disconnected with neighbours not knowing each other. After the pandemic there will be even more work to do to connect people in their neighbourhoods. This is where local government can come to the fore and conduct local place making actions and draw people together to work with one another to reconnect and build social capital.Even if the work completed by local government is as low level as promoting activities people could undertake to reconnect by making everyday Neighbour’s Day in roads would be made into breaking down the barriers created by isolation. This promotion could be as simple as listing ideas for building connection and social capital. Many Councils already take this approach. Additional work would involve targeted community development projects to encourage connection e.g. community picnics, BBQs, street parties etc.

In much of this work local government could partner with local community organisations, charities, health/mental health providers, non government and government agencies to further this work and reach out, not only to the general community, but also those at risk of continuing to live in isolation and loneliness.

Economic Development

Economic Development should never be isolated from Community Development. They are closely related. Without a strong, connected community their can be no real local economy. A growing local economy aids the development of community.

Often, many local governments focus their economic development on attracting big employers to an area and miss out on small business. But small local businesses are essential to employment growth and community growth. Supporting small business supports local community. Local government has an important role in supporting, building and developing local small business as well as big out of the area employers and larger local industry.

During the closedown periods those hardest hit may well be small local business. Many may not financially survive the period of the pandemic others will struggle through. Economic Development workers at local Councils will have a role to play in supporting those continuing, those rebuilding and new businesses starting up. Councils may need to revisit and review their grants strategies and support offered to new business.

The pandemic and lockdown has really highlighted the vulnerability of single speed local economies i.e. those powered by one or two industries. This is especially true for areas where the prime industry is tourism and its sibling hospitality. With national and state borders closed, people not permitted to travel unnecessarily out of area, airports almost dormant, the cruise ship industry in turmoil locations reliant on tourism are approaching crisis level. The longer the tourists don’t come the deeper the long term impact for those areas. In these type of areas local government has a major role to play in attracting and building alternate economies so that they become diversified. In Australia there are some obvious actions that can be taken. For example, north Queensland has the ingredients to develop renewable energy as an industrial sector. Populations is not as dense as in the southern states, there is ample sunshine and wind. With mining anticipated to diminish over the coming decade a renewable industry strategy should be a priority.

Tourism related areas will also need to broaden the focus of their energies to include the whole community and not only the tourist areas. Often residents in tourist towns feel that they are neglected for the income generated by tourists. Even if this is only a perception local government has a challenge in being inclusive of the whole community and not only tourist strips.

Conclusion

These are only initial thoughts. I’m certain others will add to the discussion. But the important thing is that local government will have a large role to play in rebuilding communities following this period of time.

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