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Jeremy Cooper

Recovery isn’t the right word – let’s talk about reformation

This week we have spent time with several councils and NHS organisations planning for the recovery period after Covid-19.

We worked through the impact of the crisis on different areas of council budgets, analysing 60 typical major budget lines. We identified over 50 direct impacts that may well be covered by central government funding, at least in the short term. But we also identified more than 60 areas of indirect impact that are unlikely to be covered by crisis funding – and this list is growing every day.

Several big themes were captured as part of this process. Most of them relate to concerns about things that will have changed significantly, putting extra burden on public services. Examples include reducing the level of unsustainable ‘free’ community resource offered during the crisis (for example daily support for the ‘extremely vulnerable’ group and the high levels of support put in for people leaving hospital) and loss of business rates from business closures. We mapped the themes, the specific challenges involved and the likely effort required to overcome them. It was an overwhelming list.

The next step was working through the opportunities afforded by everything that will have changed – and we were surprised and delighted to see that this list was twice as long as the list of challenges. It became clear that there is a massive opportunity to ‘bounce forward’ rather than merely ‘bounce back’.

Some might be tempted to see the challenge facing local government as a fight to get back to where it was before the crisis – but that is likely to be an impossible mountain to climb. Instead, system leaders are starting to frame the challenge differently, and have a new summit in their sights.

There is a once in a generation opportunity – and responsibility – to rebuild local government into something new, not back into what it was. Rather than recovery, what we will actually need is rejuvenation, reinvention, remaking, regeneration, renewal. This is not to belittle the challenge being faced – it is simply to reframe it.

We see ‘reformation’ as the most helpful framing because it acknowledges that the end-state of local government will be different. ‘Recovery’ implies the end state will be like it used to be, but at this time of uncertainty perhaps the one thing we can agree on is that this isn’t possible. Reformation allows the conversation to be about the sector’s ambitions for the future.

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