In times of national or global crisis, the scale of meaningful action is often, paradoxically, local.

So it has proven with the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the focus of the media hubbub rested on the merits or otherwise of national government decisions, local communities throughout the country quietly mobilised to help people during lockdowns. This has resulted in increasing scepticism of the over-centralised nature of governance in this country, alongside a growing sense that alternative and more meaningfully democratic models are available.

The pandemic has thus contributed to a process of local democratisation, in two senses. 

1. It has helped to normalise the participation of local people in the governance and management of services and assets that are important to them. 

By contrast, councils that have helped community groups to thrive are those that have made space for them to develop organically, set up grant schemes to assist their activities, and supported them to resolve logistical and bureaucratic challenges. 

Community activity has been an indispensable part of the pandemic response. People checking regularly on their neighbours; delivering essential items to vulnerable or self-isolating households; and setting up local befriending schemes and online events to lift people’s spirits in difficult and lonely times. Some communities have come together to form informal mutual aid groups, join existing voluntary networks, and work alongside public bodies to help as many people as possible. At New Local, we describe this as a new community-powered approach to public services.  

The importance of local government in facilitating this approach cannot be understated. Two separate pieces of New Local research on the pandemic, on mutual aid groups and local responses to lockdowns, found that councils have a ‘make-or-break’ role when it comes to the robustness of community-led action in times of crisis. Councils that have ignored, or sought to control or direct, the efforts of community groups in lockdowns only have managed to suppress them. By contrast, councils that have helped community groups to thrive are those that have made space for them to develop organically, set up grant schemes to assist their activities, and supported them to resolve logistical and bureaucratic challenges. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen many cases of new participatory networks and greater institutional willingness to reach out to and seek input from communities who are less often heard.

For these councils, working so closely with the third sector and communities to respond to COVID-19 lockdowns has produced an epiphany of sorts. In a real life-or-death public health emergency, the traditional siloed, hierarchical and bureaucratic ways of working in the public sector fell apart. In its place emerged a more collaborative culture and a more agile model of service delivery, both of which have produced tangible successes and allowed councils to rediscover the value of listening to communities. 

Some councils have made time to think about the practices that worked in the first lockdown and embed them into their day-to-day operations. Sheffield City Council, for example, set up online workshops with communities to involve them in local response planning. Such was their success that the council is continuing to hold the workshops to inform its new ‘dialogue-based approach’ to service design and delivery. 

2. The experience of the pandemic has crystallised and further developed a trend toward more direct, inclusive, and open public engagement in institutions.

Another paradox: within circumstances that necessitated the suspension of elections and limited people’s right to gather for peaceful protest or demonstration, we have nevertheless seen the increase of some kinds of democratic engagement at the local scale. This increase is, of course, from a starting point of low trust in institutions, low turnout, and comparatively few formal avenues for participation. 

The pandemic also finally removed the institutional blockages that had stood in the way of a long-held and widespread ambition to allow remote attendance at council meetings.

During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen many cases of new participatory networks and greater institutional willingness to reach out to and seek input from communities who are less often heard. One of the most remarkable developments is the London Borough of Newham’s decision to trial a standing citizen’s assembly from May 2021. The council explicitly identified the need to address inequalities highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic as a reason for its decision. 

Other councils have also proven willing to experiment with direct democracy, found new routes to include all communities in important conversations, and made use of digital tools to maximise inclusivity, as the Sheffield example illustrates. This has coincided with a notable uptick in public satisfaction in and trust of local institutions.

One interesting factor is that, while traditional approaches to representative democracy are difficult to sustain during a pandemic, digital tools make innovative and direct participation more plausible. Several local deliberative forums adapted and continued through the pandemic. The Camden Health and Care assembly switched to digital for all but its first session in 2020, and Lancaster’s People’s Jury on climate change was completely online, holding evidence sessions, hosting discussions, and publishing a detailed set of recommendations in November 2020 which have since been committed to by the council. 

New Local’s research indicates that a growing number of councils are proactively embedding more open, democratic and inclusive practices throughout their organisations for the longer term. 

The pandemic also finally removed the institutional blockages that had stood in the way of a long-held and widespread ambition to allow remote attendance at council meetings. The success of this approach in some places has led to calls to ensure that the change is made permanent. Ironically, this will need to be approved by the UK Government – further evidence that our country’s system of government still has a long way to go to overcome its centralising tendencies. 

Sustaining these positive changes beyond the pandemic will be difficult - but not impossible

In many areas, the most serious public health crisis in 100 years brought local public services and communities closer together. New Local’s research indicates that a growing number of councils are proactively embedding more open, democratic and inclusive practices throughout their organisations for the longer term. 

While there remain significant obstacles to overcome – not least the pressing need to dismantle digital inequalities and other barriers to democratic engagement – local responses to COVID-19 lockdowns have demonstrated that a more participatory culture is effective at the local scale. We have seen what is possible; now the work starts to capture and sustain it.

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Charlotte Morgan is a Senior Policy Researcher at New Local, specialising in devolution and local government. She previously worked on devolution and Brexit strategy for Cornwall Council.

Dr Simon Kaye is a Senior Policy Researcher at New Local, specialising in democracy, self-governance, and the work of Elinor Ostrom. He has previously worked as Research Director at the Project for Modern Democracy and as an academic in the departments of Political Economy and Liberal Arts at King’s College London.