The Art of the Possible: Local Government Experience of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Art of the Possible: Local Government Experience of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Richard Machin

A reflection on what proved possible in the response to the pandemic despite huge budgetary pressures, lessons learned and implications for future crises, based on an analysis of the experiences of Nottingham City Council

What was possible during the COVID-19 pandemic

Baroness Hallett, the chair of the Covid public inquiry has understandably stated that the hearings will focus on the suffering and loss caused by the pandemic. Alongside this, however, the inquiry has highlighted the positive ways in which the most marginalised members of the community were supported in times of unprecedented pressure, often in innovative and unexpected ways. My research with Nottingham City Council clearly revealed ‘the art of the possible’ during the crisis, and the key role local government played in responding to the needs of the communities they serve.

If there were doubts about the ability of local government to respond in a timely manner to the challenges of the pandemic these were comprehensively dispatched. My analysis revealed the ways in which systems had to be created from scratch, this happened at an impressive pace to respond to complex need.

Overnight, local authorities were required to fundamentally alter service delivery, ensuring statutory services were maintained to service users isolated at home, alongside a wide range of new demands. This required a high degree of flexibility, often staff were redeployed into completely new roles (for example library staff being moved into caring roles) and this had to be managed in the face of unprecedented levels of pandemic-related staff absence. Additionally the move to remote, home-working and online only services had to be carefully managed. This created different challenges across the organisation. Senior managers and decision-makers needed to ensure that online systems and digital services were quickly put into place and frontline staff could no longer rely on face-to-face contact to assess need and vulnerability.

In common with other local authorities, the pandemic demonstrated that it was possible for Nottingham City Council to deliver a range of new services, outside the scope of routine function. This included the procurement and supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline staff, welfare checks and the delivery of medicine and food to those who were clinically vulnerable, the provision of immediate, emergency accommodation for rough sleepers through the ‘Everyone In’ initiative, and the extension of education duties to include online learning and delivery of learning materials to the homes of children. To make all this possible existing partnerships had to utilised and new ones forged. This analysis showed that joint working with Public Health England, the NHS, businesses, housing providers and local universities was particularly important in ensuring swift action.

The response in numbers demonstrates the scale of the support operation: 1.9 million items of PPE distributed, 2,500 home visits to clinically vulnerable residents, 12,000 welfare calls to people who were isolating and the provision of 2000 food parcels. The pandemic incurred a heavy financial cost for the authority, with lost revenue from income streams such as tourism, parking and leisure alongside increased costs.

Lessons learned and compromised future capacity

The pandemic highlighted the vital role local authorities play in responding to the needs of local communities. For people working in this space this is obvious but given the precarious and worsening position of local authorities, it is important to emphasise.

It is also clear that the pandemic shone a light on long term inequalities. Existing inequalities were aggravated, exposing both groups of people and geographic areas which have become marginalised over the last 10 years.

Since my research, in November 2023, Nottingham City Council issued a section 114 notice of effective bankruptcy. Six local authorities have declared bankruptcy since 2021, it is inevitable that more will follow. It is important that these local authorities are not seen as examples of financial mismanagement, but as a consequence of progressively inadequate funding being unable to meet ever increasing demand.

Local government achievements during a brutal period of health and economic pressures should be celebrated but we cannot expect local authorities to operate in this way on an ongoing basis. Nearly four years on from the onset of the pandemic Nottingham City Council (as with most other authorities) could not now provide the level of service described in this blog.  

Reflecting on Nottingham City Council’s financial challenges, the Local Government Information Unit called for multi-year financial settlements and central government funding which is linked to service demand. This is a model which must be adopted to allow local authorities to effectively function during times of both stability and crisis.

Richard Machin is a senior lecturer in Social Work and Health and Nottingham Trent University

The research on which this blog is based is available at: Machin, R., 2023. UK local government experience of COVID-19 Lockdown: Local responses to global challenges. Local Economy.