What is your town’s recovery plan for the post-Covid19 years?

TL:DR Every district, town and city will need to plan for this – and they need to start now

I’m currently browsing through the index of some of the wartime era titles of the Vintage Penguin back catalogue. And it’s huge. (The RSPCA Bookshop on Mill Road, Cambridge has a big bookcase full of them). In the background is the Prime Minister giving an update on the Corona Virus in the face of yet another tier system. No, he hasn’t brushed his hair – thus keeping up the bumbling Boris brand in the face of the biggest national and global public health pandemic of modern times. This on the back of a public spending statement from his Chancellor that has been panned in many quarters, not least the pay freeze for the public sector, in the face of yet another tale of corruption involving senior conservatives and their chums. That or they just happen to be very, very, very lucky in their bids and business activities. (Note we’ve seen next to nothing from ministers about how to recoup/claw back some of that spending through renegotiations or even windfall taxes).

Below – some of the books I’ve acquired – plus Isabel Hardman on why we get the wrong politicians.

I’ve picked the one above by Isabel Hardman (pictured above with Puffles at the Cambridge Literary Festival in 2018) because Cambridge has *four* election campaigns coming up, granting voters six separate votes. Three for Cambridge City Council (as the full council is up for re-election), one for Cambridgeshire County Council, and then the Metro Mayor & the Police & Crime Commissioner. At the same time the Flatpack Democracy Campaign have been in touch with a few people locally to see what scope there is for more independent candidates standing for election – though hopefully not in the style that Puffles did in 2014! Peter Macfadyen visited Cambridge back in 2016 to give a talk on Flatpack Democracy at the invitation of his niece Lily, who at the time was the community manager of the Cambridge Hub.

Above – Peter MacFadyen of Flatpack Democracy in Cambridge back in 2016.

Q&A from the Experiments In Democracy event, Cambridge 2016.

I hope that the longer term future for Cambridge & Cambridgeshire are themes of this campaign, and that the debate does not default to potholes and council tax rates. Furthermore, I hope that candidates and potential voters, and the public generally draw conversations out on how we collectively recover from the blow that CV19 hit us all with. (Inevitably there will be a degree of debate on the fallout from Brexit as we get a sense of ‘this is it’ as far as paperwork for imports/exports and no access for stuff we used to have access to kicks home – with Easter being the acid test for the blue passports debate).

Shaping the post-Covid landscape at a local level

Despite the failure of ministers to grant the resources that local councils need to respond to the pandemic (and thus reneging on Jenrick’s promise to give councils what they needed), the planning and conversations need to start now. This is because the town centres that we find still standing once the restrictions are lifted won’t be the same as the ones there when the lockdown was brought in. The rows of empty shop units will come as a shock to many – mindful that many people have not been able or willing to visit town centres nearly as frequently (if at all) since the first lockdown.

It’s not just shops and shopping. It’s mental ill health.

Mental ill-health has been one of the main themes to emerge from the impact of the lockdown restrictions. For many of us things have been difficult, and more people have reported that their mental health has suffered as a result. The link between Money and Mental Health is so well known it has its own policy institute. But so long as ministers choose to put the interests of big finance over the mental health needs of the general population, it’s hard to see where the movement on this policy area will from. If anything it has gone the other way, with the explosion of gambling advertising online, the growth of betting shops on the high street, and on the sponsorship of football shirts. The reason why money-related mental ill-health is an even more important issue is because of the huge number of job losses resulting from CV19 – mindful the economy was already in trouble before then, and that’s not even accounting for Brexit or the Climate Emergency.

Moving from reimagining the future of society to working out how to make it happen

In the run up to, and throughout WW2, Penguin published dozens of cheap books on current affairs under the Penguin Specials, & Pelican Specials brands – they’re listed here. Again, it’s a shame we don’t have a similar series today (or perhaps if we do, they are not nearly as prominent in the face of so much disinformation).

During wartime, one easily-forgotten fact is that for the soldiers of both WWI and WW2, much of the time is spent waiting or moving. It wasn’t 24/7 hand-to-hand fighting, though I dread to think the mental health impact of moving from the heat of battle to down-time and back so frequently. One of the biggest public policy challenges was relieving boredom. One of the methods was publishing and distributing lots of books cheaply – which was why Penguin set up the Forces Book Club. We can only imagine the discussions and debates these would have informed throughout the conflict.

While I’ve got more than my fair share of ideas on post-CV19 Cambridge, it’s all the more important that the rebuilding process is one that is far more inclusive than politics has been in recent times. What is that process going to look like? How do politicians and institutions ensure that it’s not simply decided with those with the wealth, knowledge, access, and power? How do they – we, ensure that it’s not simply the usual suspects (including me) that respond to the consultations, the results of which then get ignored but then hey, a box gets ticked? (Thus indicating a broken process in more than one stage/place).

Local government’s power of facilitation and convening

Inevitably it has taken a huge hit from the CV19 restrictions – as have the venues that they use for such gatherings. I’ve been to more than a few of these events, and have been involved in organising them myself. Sometimes they work splendidly, sometimes they are talking shops. How do you prevent them from becoming the latter?

For me, the Volunteer for Cambridge model that Cambridge Hub volunteers were central to establishing, is one that could be expanded/replicated for separate events bringing together groups, teams, societies and organisations together that enable the public to sign up quickly and enable activities to restart, potentially with greater numbers than pre-lockdown. The excess demand for stall spaces at Volunteer for Cambridge indicates that there is the potential for this to happen.

Where increased funding for The Arts becomes more than a cliched headline

The policy responsibilities of what was labeled “The Ministry for Fun” (DCMS – formerly the Department of National Heritage) by parts of the media in the 1990s are central to any collective recovery. The shut down of sporting seasons, concert halls, and communal spaces in the attempt to control the spread of the virus – and the photographs of highly remunerated sports stars competing in empty stadia will be one of the most historically enduring legacies of this pandemic – alongside the images of overworked, underpaid, and poorly resourced frontline workers.

How do you begin to restart the worlds of arts and sports in the face of a lockdown that has left so many people without jobs, without incomes, and with run down savings and little left to give? The Cambridge Corn Exchange is experimenting with a limited number of socially-distanced shows, but these will be lucky to cover their costs.

What will the state of the pitches, pavilions, halls, and community spaces be when lockdown is lifted? Will the months – years even, of underuse mean that they need urgent work being done due to lack of maintenance? Or will the lack of use have given some pitches a much-needed break? All of this will need to be done before the restrictions are formally lifted.

What are the plans for supporting the restarting of sports leagues and sports clubs? Can we take it for granted that they will start up all of their own? Do we know if all of the volunteers survived the pandemic unscathed? If not, are those that survived getting the support that they need? Is there anyone willing and able to take their place to do the essential organising? If there isn’t, then what?

So many questions…

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