In addition to exposing and exacerbating longstanding inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has also given rise to a wealth of promising local-level initiatives. Though it is not unique, the London borough of Camden has emerged as an inspiration for other communities in the United Kingdom and around the world.
LONDON – “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody,” the American urbanist Jane Jacobs once observed, “only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
Today, we need to apply that snippet of wisdom to post-COVID-19 policymaking. If recovery from the pandemic is not felt in the places where people live their lives, it will not be a success, and will not tackle the fundamental inequalities and injustices that sit at the heart of this crisis.
To achieve the true economic and social renewal that we so desperately need, central governments must do more to empower citizens, communities, and local governments.
Consider Camden, one of London’s innermost boroughs. Having suffered through more than a year of loss and pain, its residents and local government now refuse to settle for a return to the “old normal” that was failing people and the planet. They are part of a broad and growing consensus advocating a new, inclusive, and sustainable economy – and have a key role in shaping it.
Back in March 2020, the month that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Camden Council formally pledged that no residents would go hungry or be evicted from their homes; that no care workers would lose their livelihoods because they fell ill; and that everyone would be valued and treated with compassion.
To fulfill these promises, the Council reoriented itself and mobilized a team of redeployed staff and thousands of volunteers to deliver new services to prevent hunger, support distressed businesses, protect vulnerable children and isolated adults, and ensure young people could continue to learn at home. The borough quickly set up local COVID-19 testing centers and mobile vaccination units (including a repurposed school bus), helping to offset some of the national government’s mistakes and allocate services where they are needed in the heart of the community.
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Camden is not unique. Around the world, citizens and local governments have been working together in extraordinary ways to manage the crisis. As centralized systems floundered, local models and experiments found ways to extend support to those left behind by top-down systems. When local governments and communities have the resources they need, and when they are empowered to act, they will devise effective solutions that no one at the national level would have even considered – solutions that make the most of our relationships and our shared resources and capacities.
We should remember this lesson when confronting other problems such as climate change and socioeconomic injustice. As thousands of desperate people have turned to their local governments for nutritional and financial support, the inadequacies of the safety nets in the United Kingdom and the United States have been laid bare. The fact that each wave of COVID-19 has fallen hardest on minority communities speaks to systemic racial inequalities that demand our urgent attention.
But if local governments are to meet these challenges, more investment is needed. In the UK, councils are facing huge shortfalls after a decade of underfunding, and the central government already seems to be stepping back from commitments made during the crisis. Nationally, for 2021-22 there is a £2.6 billion ($3.6 billion) hole in council finances from the pandemic and existing gaps.
Addressing these issues requires ambition. For its part, Camden Council is adopting a mission-based approach whereby public, private, and civic organizations will share resources and work cooperatively toward common goals. This can be a new era of local government, where councils think of themselves not as fixers who sit on the side-lines, stepping in only when things go wrong, but as market shapers who play a central role in how value is co-created and shared locally.
Local governments can do this in a variety of ways. Through local taxation, wealth funds can be created, with the returns reinvested in the community. And by placing conditions on private investments, they can ensure that such ventures are serving public interests.
In Camden, this work is being pursued through a partnership between the Council and the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London. We have launched the Renewal Commission, a taskforce dedicated to helping public, private, academic, and civic organizations invest in every member of our community.
The Commission believes that policy begins with listening. Over the past six months, we have been heeding the input of our partners and communities, and generating missions designed to tackle the interlocking challenges of racial inequality, food poverty, and climate change. These community-led missions will come alive in schools, housing estates, high streets, businesses, and youth centers – the places where people live, work, and interact with one another every day.
Working with social entrepreneurs and community researchers from every walk of life, local governments can unlock a new era of civic leadership. This is already starting to happen. In Camden’s Kentish Town, a new, locally run civic venture is offering start-up space, a food cooperative, and support for refugees.
We are revealing the powers citizens already have to make their neighborhoods better, with the Council in a facilitating and enabling role. For example, after hearing from young black people that they had trouble imagining themselves in powerful positions because they only saw their history through slavery, Camden schools are now working to diversify the curriculum.
Citizen assemblies also can help forge new coalitions for change. After organizing the UK’s first citizen assembly in 2019, Camden has doubled the length of its network of bicycle lanes and completed work on a large-scale low-energy project and new low-carbon council housing. Camden is also working on estates to hand power to tenants and leaseholders – supporting them to decide how to spend community budgets and invest for the long term.
We can all take inspiration from local leaders in the UK and around the world who are tearing up the rulebook and sharing power with their communities. Camden’s pandemic experience has shown the urgent need to tackle inequality – as well as what can be achieved with a shared purpose and a commitment to working with communities. After all, economic recovery won’t be measured only in terms of new businesses, GDP, or jobs, but also in terms of indices measuring connection, belonging, informal education, economic security, and equity.
We believe local examples like Camden can become a national story in many countries. But first, national governments must hand over more power and resources to local authorities. Local communities have the creativity and energy to transform themselves, if only we let them.