Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?

How COVID influenced community action

An essay by Ryan Herman, commissioned by Local Trust

Foreword

Big Local is one of the most radical and exciting grant programmes ever launched by a major lottery funder. Between 2010 and 2012, the National Lottery Community Fund identified 150 areas that had historically missed out on lottery and other funding. Each of those areas was allocated over £1m of Big Local funding.

Money could be spent in any way they chose, provided residents organised themselves locally to plan and manage that funding, involving the wider community in the decision-making process. Crucially, the programme was designed not just to provide funding for projects, but to do so in a way that would build community capacity, confidence, and skills in the longer term.

Now over halfway through the programme, and as Local Trust, the programme’s delivery organisation, reaches its 10th anniversary, it is fair to say we are starting to see long-lasting, tangible change. Whether its bricks and mortar social infrastructure like the community-led restoration of a Victorian boating lake in the suburbs of Manchester; planning permission for the country’s largest onshore wind turbine run by and for local residents in Bristol; or the softer but equally important legacies of new relationships, increased confidence, and capacity – people in Big Local neighbourhoods are laying foundations for their own futures.

When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, one of the most important early stories about the crisis was the way in which local people took responsibility for supporting one another, in communities across the country.  Something that was true of many Big Local areas, where organised groups were able to mobilise quickly and effectively, as they possessed local knowledge, networks, and resources, they could identify those at risk, people who needed support or those who could help others.

This essay is also an important reminder of what can be achieved when people come together for a common purpose, and whilst that may seem a cliché, in a time when we have been explicitly told to stay apart, I think it’s worth noting.

Foreword by Matt Leach, Local Trust CEO.

Introduction

When you look back on your life, when you reflect on the friendships, the partners, the births, deaths and marriages, the ‘what was I thinking?’ moments, you will also reflect on an extraordinary time when you were asked to do nothing for months on end.

Don’t go to work, don’t work at all, don’t socialise, stay indoors, except for Thursdays at 8pm when you can step outside and clap for two minutes.

It may be some years before we truly understand the impact of the pandemic beyond the staggering number of people who lost their lives; COVID-related deaths claimed more civilian lives than WWII.

But we will also hopefully reflect on the community spirit that bookended this crisis from the first lockdown through the rollout of the vaccine programme.

In a society that has become increasingly about me, myself and I, many of us relied on the people who live in our road, on our estate, or in our village, to help us get through the most unsettling time in British life since the height of the Cold War.

Boxes of produce for fresh food Fridays – an initiative implemented by North West Ipswich Big Local during COVID-19 lockdown to deliver fresh fruit and veg to local residents.

The pandemic also forced many existing community groups to reevaluate their priorities. Suddenly they found themselves dealing with matters of life and death, in some cases having to step in while other support services and charities were stretched beyond their limits.

And beyond this immediate response, for many people who run Big Local groups, the crisis prompted consideration of what sort of legacy they will leave when the programme ends in 2026.

As one community leader said, “we wanted to give people hope and something to look forward to when this is over”.

They also had to seize a moment in time. Often the biggest challenge that groups faced before the pandemic was apathy and trying to get people excited or involved in a new local project. Suddenly thousands came forward to become volunteers, to actively engage in their communities.

This essay examines how the past two years have helped Big Local partnerships to reevaluate their purpose, place and plans for the future. Talking to community groups across the country, it explores loneliness and isolation, green spaces, the digital divide and welfare.

Having visited a number of Big Local partnerships before the pandemic, one learns that patience is a virtue, and that projects often take a long time to get off the ground.
Sometimes they can be stymied by process, seemingly endless meetings and consultations, often due to a ‘this is how we’ve always done things’ sentiment. But these stories will help to demonstrate that it doesn’t always have to be that way.

And yet, while responses in each community focused on the needs of the people living there, what they all have in common is a clear and obvious desire to see something good come from a time when being asked to do nothing meant they had to do something.

I

Brereton Million

“The best action is actually local community action. People will respond, they will volunteer, they will take part as long as they feel they get a sense of ownership from that. If they feel they’re being used as cheap labour they’re not interested.”

Sir Peter Fahy

It all started with one woman asking Sue Merriman to knock on a few doors, to check that people living on their own were okay.

Within a matter of weeks, checking up on your neighbours and friends had mushroomed into a coordinated community-wide plan, with hundreds of volunteers, all feeding into a shared drive that lists the needs, hobbies and interests of people living in every one of the 3,500 homes in Brereton Million’s Big Local catchment area, and beyond.

Food parcels being prepared in Brereton Million Big Local

The goal was to ensure that nobody in Brereton was at risk of being overlooked, left in isolation, or feeling as if they’ve nobody to turn to, or trust, both during and after the COVID crisis, and to make everyone feel closer to their community. In other words, it was to say: ‘we’ve got your back’.

Sue is the Big Local worker for Brereton Million, Staffordshire. In a previous life, she was a manager at the local nightclub. This proved to be surprisingly good training for going door-to-door during the first lockdown in spring 2020, as she was already skilled in the art of reading people and being able to quickly diffuse a difficult situation.

“Every door we knocked on we found a new problem.”

Sue Merriman

“Some people said they wouldn’t leave the house. Others, who were ‘at risk’ had been told not to leave their homes for at least 12 weeks. Before I knew it, I suddenly had the church calling me to say ‘could you get in touch with such and such.’

“The council were ringing us for help, the doctors were ringing us for help, the police were coming to us to get food parcels.

“While the other food banks in the area were open seven days a week, our local food bank only opened on two half-days a week. Yes, that was simply how they operated. And they insisted people would have to collect their food. So we would collect it and deliver the food parcels.

“But we built up relationships, because we knocked on that door and said: ‘We’re here for you. We’ll do what you need us to do.’ We kept our distance, but we broke down barriers.”

In some cases, it proved to be a life-changing interaction.

“I don’t know if it was fate, but one man opened a door who was moments away from taking his own life,” says Sue.

“He broke down, talked to me and shared his problems.”

A survey published by the National Lottery Community Fund last year asked 7,000 people to name the top priority for ‘the wellbeing of your community’. Reducing isolation and loneliness came top (47 per cent), ahead of helping the local economy (43 per cent), supporting mental health (39 per cent) and helping local people to live healthily and well (38 per cent).

More than a third of the people who live on their own in the UK are over 65. This equates to around four million Brits.

Even before lockdown came into effect, it was clear that over 65s had more than most to fear from COVID. If you’re healthy, could work from home, and could go out and exercise every day, then your experience of the pandemic was inevitably going to be very different to those who couldn’t.

In fact, many working people living here were busier than ever.

Brereton is part of Rugeley, which was once a mining community. The last visible sign of the area’s industrial history literally disappeared when the cooling towers at Rugeley Power Station were blown up by a controlled explosion on June 6, 2021.

The final stage in the demolition of Rugeley Power Station. Photo: Shaun Johnson/Alamy

Amazon is now the area’s biggest local employer, and it’s no secret that its profits soared through COVID, contributing to the fact that unemployment is relatively low in Brereton.

Certainly, there are Big Local areas that would more obviously fit the stereotype of a place that has been underfunded and overlooked.

But when the pandemic came to town, it affected them as badly as anywhere, especially among the older members of their community.

I first spoke to Sue in April 2020. At the time, she said, “We started to find people living on their own, who had been in isolation for about two weeks and are anything from 83 to 95 years old.

“We were finding that a lot of the residents who haven’t got any family members left, who have locked themselves away, did their shopping three weeks ago and are now starting to run out of supplies.

“In some cases, they had gone three or four days without food and they are literally sitting in their houses, watching the news, seeing that a doctor has died, a 13-year-old has died, and they are petrified. I do worry how many more people are out there, beyond our community, who are in the same boat.”

She also spoke about key workers being “shattered”.

So, Brereton Million stepped in where others either didn’t have the capacity or simply couldn’t react quickly enough, and a resident-led group found itself acting as an auxiliary emergency service.

Sue adds, “A lot of people won’t know this side about what we did in COVID, but we became close with a lot of the residents.

“Unfortunately, we had people who were seriously or terminally ill. And they needed support setting up things like care packages with the St Giles charity, not just for themselves, but for their partner.

“Sometimes they needed help setting up a will. And some residents simply wanted to pass away at home.

“So, yeah, we became hand-holders ‘til they passed away, to the point where I’ve even stayed in some people’s houses so that their partner could also get some sleep.” Their work didn’t go unnoticed. In September, Brereton Million was awarded Compassionate Community Charter Status by Compassionate Communities UK. This is the first time this national award has been given in acknowledgement of a community group, whereas previously it’s gone to a town, city or council.

Residents of Brereton and Ravenhill in South Staffordshire become the first UK community ever to be awarded ‘Compassionate Community Charter’ status.

At this point, you may be thinking what about Sue? Surely, there must have come a point time when she thought ‘I need a break from this’, and that it could have affected her mental health?

“Yes,” she says. “Several times. We’ve got a youth group counsellor. And I went to her and said, ‘I’ve got this group of kids…’ and then she stopped me and said ‘you need to talk to somebody. I think I sat with her for about six weeks and unloaded.’

As well as providing on the spot support, Brereton Million wanted to create something that would build on their experiences for the future.

As Sue and I talk over a cuppa in Brereton Million’s community hub, more than 16 months on from our first chat on the phone, we are joined by Kevin Mann. He got involved in Big Local through his wife, Karen, and has now become an integral part of the partnership as well as a project that has transformed the local park to create a play area and pool for kids, and a woodland walk.

Sue gets out her laptop to talk about this mega shared drive, which has been dubbed ‘The Matrix’ by one of the partnership members.

Coordinators and volunteers are assigned to carry out certain jobs. One of those volunteers, who is now also a member of the Brereton Million partnership, is former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy. He now ranks among more than 170 active people who continue to serve the community months after lockdown restrictions have been lifted.

“I have to say, it kept me sane during lockdown”

peter fahy

“It gave me a reason to be out there, get involved, meet lots of people and do some good. I was very passionate about neighbourhood policing and that’s why I loved doing community work through COVID because it’s almost like going back to that” says Peter.

He adds: “Also, thinking about my policing background, I was always struck by the fact that it’s the Sues of this world, because they’re local community activists, who get things done, who know the local area, who know the people who are willing to volunteer and the local businesses who are willing to support them.

“They also bring a huge amount of life experience and wisdom that statutory agencies and the more established charities don’t fully recognise. Too often we’ve privatised or subcontracted care and compassion, or said that’s the job of the ‘professionals’.

“It also means when the council wants to do something, they’ve got a group of people they can talk to, and have that know-how.

“A local community works best when it can draw on its skills and life experiences, the common sense that often comes from people who themselves have been through difficult times, and are actually the best people to help others going through challenges.

“But I don’t sense that government and politicians, recognise the value of local community effort. I think they like to see the answer to social problems as more laws, more task forces, more targets and more regulation.”

In fact, Brereton Million is now working with the council on a health and wellbeing programme.

Peter adds that the next step is to build on the work they’ve done over the past 18 months and for Brereton Million to become a registered charity. That means it can live on beyond 2026 when the Big Local programme ends.

As Kevin Mann observes, “I sometimes think to myself, what if Big Local wasn’t here? What would have happened if we hadn’t done all this and didn’t have a group of people who were able to respond so quickly in a crisis?” In some cases, that doesn’t bear thinking about.

II

Heston West Big Local

“We’re all meant to be in the same boat. But some boats turn out to be luxury yachts and others are dinghies”

Alan Fraser, chair of Heston West Big Local

Figures published in June 2020 by HMRC revealed that 38 per cent of the total workforce in the constituency of Feltham and Heston had applied for the furlough scheme. That represented the third-highest figure in the country.

In August 2021, it was still third, with 36,600 people on furlough.

One of the key reasons behind those figures is that thousands are (or were) employed at Heathrow Airport, less than three miles away.

On an average day in Heston, look up to the skies and you will see a succession of planes coming in to land. During the pandemic, the skies were empty. In January 2020, Heathrow handled 6,009,370 passengers. A year later, that figure had fallen to 677,356.

According to the most recent forecasts, it will take another three to four years for the airport to return to its peak passenger numbers. The loss of air traffic will cost the borough an estimated £1 billion in economic activity between 2020 and 2022.

All of which, created understandable anxiety within local community groups such as Heston West Big Local (HWBL).

A steering group was instigated by HWBL Chair Alan Fraser that included Hounslow council, Feltham and Heston MP (and shadow minister for employment) Seema Malhotra, and the Chamber of Commerce, on what they could do to mitigate the likely problems caused – youth unemployment, the strain on mental health and wellbeing.

While some proposals failed to cut through, one idea that was approved by the council has seen HWBL set up a ‘one stop shop’ that operates every Tuesday, aimed at identifying career opportunities beyond the short-term and the zero-hour contract.

“Being an economist, I was aware of the impact this was going to have economically from the start. But people weren’t talking about it, understandably because they were focused on other things,” says Alan.

Our post-lockdown, post-Brexit economy has revealed huge workforce shortages in certain sectors. But even if you wanted to work in agriculture, you don’t find too many people talking about crop rotation and pastoral farming when you are neighbour to one of the world’s busiest airports.

Furthermore, Heston West, like so many other Big Local areas, is on the periphery of its borough. According to Alan and Taz Virdee, Project Manager for HWBL, Hounslow’s recovery plan is skewed towards the wealth of Chiswick and the regeneration of Brentford.

So, there’s an element of having to take matters into one’s own hands.

“We’re all meant to be in the same boat. But some boats turn out to be luxury yachts and others are dinghies,” says Alan.

Taz explains, “[The steering group] helped us determine what sort of projects we should be focusing on in future.

“I noticed throughout my career that with job centres the approach has been poor and people feel almost forced into something they don’t want to do.

“We want to create an environment where people can talk about how they want to improve themselves, and not necessarily always find a job but also find training opportunities to come out of this pandemic and help them pursue their passions. It’s about creating hope and aspiration.”

This sparked another idea that had been side-lined, but suddenly became the central focus of HWBL’s post-COVID plan: a community garden.

Plan for the community garden and café in Heston West Big Local

Walk through Heston and you soon realise there isn’t much by way of amenities or places to socialise. Even the high street is something of a misnomer because it’s a residential road. Most striking of all is a chronic lack of green spaces.

Alan explains, “The community garden was on the agenda around two years ago. With COVID, it initially lost impetus, but following our consultation with the community it was something they wanted to see.”

Taz adds, “It stemmed from the food bank project that we set up through the first lockdown in Spring 2020. We were able to reach out to families who probably weren’t all that connected previously to their community. Through that engagement, we put out the word for a consultation and it became clear that the community garden is what people wanted. They wanted something to look forward to after COVID.”

A community garden is an accurate description, but it somewhat undersells Heston West’s ambition for this space.

The idea was inspired by another part of London where green spaces are at a premium. The Dalston Curve Garden in East London, where local residents took a section of a railway line that hadn’t been used since the 1950s and converted it into a thriving urban, neighbourhood garden and venue space, is a good example. It is also a social enterprise, and shows what can be achieved in a small space when you’ve got a lot of imagination.

Alan adds, “Our garden will have a cafe, so we’ll need volunteers for that, will have raised beds, so we’ll need volunteers for that, it has a small sunken amphitheatre, it has a space for activities. It is very much a living garden.” It will be built within the grounds of Cranford Community College – a sixth form college that is also home to HWBL.

Typically, the makeup of London-based Big Local partnerships is younger than other parts of the country, this is probably a reflection of London’s demographics. Around 13 per cent of Heston West’s population is over 65 compared to the national average of 18 per cent. Even so, HWBL is unique among Big Local areas because is it mostly run by people aged under 25.

Young people will learn hands-on skills that can’t be replaced by an algorithm or AI.

You can’t get Alexa to sort out your Japanese knotweed. The garden will present a different outlet for creativity, when so many young people end up in jobs out of necessity rather than choice, especially in Big Local areas where social mobility has stalled.

“It’s also about giving young people hope because some of them were starting to lose hope”

taz virdee

“That’s not the case for everyone. Some of the people I’ve worked with found their calling through the pandemic, have reflected and have worked out what they want to do with their lives.

“But a lot of young people are living in properties which are crowded, they have no personal space.

“You can imagine being a teenager, with lots of people in one room. Some students wouldn’t have video or audio on (for home schooling lessons) and were not interacting because they didn’t want other people to see what happens in their home lives.

“There is also an assumption that young people spend all their time on their phones or on social media. What we found was they were the ones who missed social interaction the most. We’ve seen a lot of relationships break up. And communities are built on relationships.”

Alan concurs. “Physical health has taken a kicking. I feel incredibly sorry for young people, some of whom were stuck in their bedrooms all day and night.

“A lot of kids in our community don’t have outdoor space, they don’t have a garden where they can go into, and it became even tougher during winter. Extra restrictions were placed within certain communities. I spoke to some young people who hadn’t been allowed out of their house, because of the fear of getting COVID.”

Young people volunteering in the community garden in Heston West Big Local

Put that all together and it’s easy to see why residents, and especially young people, living in Heston West wanted this project to happen.

There is a limit to what any community group can do, especially when the biggest employer in your area relies on people travelling to other countries during a pandemic.

But what COVID has done is challenge them to think and act decisively when often ideas for community projects can take months, even years, to turn into something meaningful.

As Alan observes, “It takes ages to get bids through, especially at the moment. And raising money for projects is very difficult. The way HWBL has been able to operate has a lot to do with the original model and vision of what a Big Local is meant to be.

“To put trust in a community and say ‘okay, here’s £1 million and the community decides what to do with that’ is a very powerful message.”

III

West End Morecambe Big Local

“As soon as lockdown happened, we recognised this was going to affect children in terms of home schooling and the difficulties created by digital poverty.”

Development worker, West End Morecambe

In January 2021 adverts started appearing around the country for endlaptoppoverty.org. The digital displays at sparsely populated shopping centres read:

***BRITAIN, WE ARE EXPERIENCING TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES_
1.78 million children don’t have access to online learning.

For many of us, broadband effectively became a utility during the pandemic, much like gas or electricity. If you wanted to order a food delivery, pay a bill, fill in a form, apply for a loan (or Universal Credit) you had to do it online.

Schoolchildren had to study from home, which meant transferring lessons online.

Not only did this expose the scale of Britain’s digital divide, but also meant thousands of kids that don’t have a home computer or laptop would be working at a clear disadvantage to their peers who could attend virtual lessons and do their homework online.

As one mother told The Sunday Times in a story about homeschooling: “The chasm between private and state education is horrifying, and some people just don’t get this. They can set their own rules. All my friends with kids at private school had remote lessons — my kids did not get any.”

Yet something else has happened over the past two years that, in theory, could help to revitalise some towns that have experienced a period of sustained decline and, in turn, create more opportunities for the younger generations who live there.

The world of work has changed profoundly. Many Brits realised they could work just as effectively from home as the office. Goodbye to being stuck in traffic, so-long to missing meetings because of the dreaded contraflow, see-ya to standing cheek by jowl for an hour on the 07:43 from somewhere in the suburbs to the big city.

Many companies have downsized office requirements and introduced hybrid working, whereby employees can split their time working from home or a local coworking space of the office.

Several Big Local areas have either taken over or are exploring the feasibility of taking a derelict building and converting it into a co-working space that would be affordable to local start-ups.

When kids believe that the only chance they have to get ahead is to get up and go to the cities, that has a knock-on effect. Some Big Local partnerships talk about their areas losing confidence and people feeling left behind.

But even if you create local spaces and opportunities, you still need the talent to fill them.

If you’re a primary school kid who comes from a family who either can’t afford a laptop or you have to share one with your siblings, you’re playing catch up when you step up into secondary school. That ‘digital divide’ risked becoming even wider during COVID lockdowns. This was something West End Morecambe Big Local immediately recognised.

Joe Robinson is one of two part-time staff at West End Morecambe Big Local and explains: “Digital access is something we had wanted to address and as soon as lockdown happened, we recognised this was going to affect children in terms of home schooling and the difficulties created by digital poverty. If they miss out on six months of education, it could have a devastating effect on their future lives.

“We have two primary schools (West End and Sandylands) and they gave us lots of anecdotal evidence that there was an issue here. So, we said to one of the schools, ‘is there any way we can do a survey?’ We thought if we can get 20 or 30 responses that would be cool and would give us a bit more information.”

Instead, they got over 170 replies that went into detail about how many devices they had between the household.

“When we got the survey results it opened our eyes”

Joe Robinson

“One of the things we wanted to measure was mobile phone usage (and access to the internet). The disparity between access was marked with some households having computers and as many as four or five mobile phones. In other homes, there could be just one mobile for a family of five people.

“Doing homework on a mobile is hard enough, if there’s only one mobile phone in the house it’s nigh impossible.

“Children throughout the schools use computers at different ages, but when the first lockdown happened one of the big issues was children who were transitioning from the final year of primary to secondary school. The schools do have an informal loan scheme on computers, but we wanted to ensure that no child was missing out.

“We said ‘if we can get the numbers, we will work out the cost of a computer for the majority of children across years five and six. That’s upward of 120 computers. The schools will talk to the families who most need them, if some come back and say they don’t need it, those will be passed on to other years who do.

“We had to be clear that this is about providing non-statutory assistance to families. Big Local isn’t meant to replace statutory tools and equipment. The cost came to £27,000 but the minimum lifespan of those computers will be four or five years so that becomes under £7000 a year.”

So, for a relatively small outlay, West End Morecambe could have a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of school children and families within their catchment area.

Joe adds, “The figure sounds like a lot of money but when you break it down over time and by the number of children helped it works out somewhere around £50 per child. Yet the impact it might have is priceless.

“What we’re trying to ensure is that there is no gap in their education and future careers. We’ve also spoken to a trust who have expressed a strong interest in delivering wraparound services – such as after school clubs – so it can also bring other funds and support into the community.”

In the year that has passed since West End Morecambe put that plan into action, feedback from the schools, using baseline assessments, suggest pupils are more or less in line with where they should be for the start of their new year. School staff believe this was a direct impact of accessing home learning on the laptops.

The schools have also indicated that the project had engendered a sense of collective pride in West End children. Parents also benefited from training sessions looking at mental health and well-being facilitated with computers loaned out to families.

In ‘normal times’ a project like this could have taken months to get off the ground. West End Morecambe was one of a number of Big Local areas that went on a similar journey during the pandemic, by making online access one of its priorities.

IV

Big Local Central Jarrow

“Because a basic income goes to everyone it should be built by everyone, from the grassroots up.”

Cleo Goodman, Basic Income Conversation

Jarrow remains synonymous with the events of October 1936, when unemployment in the town stood at 68.7 per cent and 200 men marched from South Tyneside to the House of Commons.

What became known as the Jarrow Crusade failed in its primary objective to persuade the government that it should reopen a local shipyard. The site was shut down two years previously by a cartel of shipbuilders in a move designed to restrict output and drive up prices.

But the crusade struck a chord with the public and exposed the severity of the 1930s recession. Northern communities bore the brunt of The Great Depression.

As one marcher said: “We were more or less missionaries of the distressed areas, [not just] Jarrow.”

The march sparked debates about the system of means-tested unemployment benefits. A report commissioned by the National government of that time stated that “the anxiety of always living upon a bare minimum without any margin of resources or any hope of improvement is slowly sapping their nervous strength and power of resistance”.

When Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government swept into power it pledged never to return to the grim days of the ’30s, went on to create a new welfare state, and founded the NHS.

According to Dr Matt Perry, historian and author of The Jarrow Crusade: Protest and Legend, the march “helped to bring about the new consensus on welfare”.

The story of the Jarrow Crusade, understandably, still looms large in the town today.

Unemployed coal miners demonstrating at Jarrow, England, in 1936. Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy

Big Local Central Jarrow’s community hub on Cambrian Street is located 500 metres from where the march began on October 5 at Christ Church.

The hub is on the same road as the Jarrow Crusade statue that was officially unveiled at 11am on October 5 2001, to coincide with the time the marchers set off from South Tyneside.

History can sometimes be a burden on a community, but what Central Jarrow is attempting to do is embark on an ambitious project that, if successful, could eventually spark the most radical overhaul of the welfare system since the Attlee era.

At the time of writing, Central Jarrow is examining the feasibility of a community-led pilot scheme for Universal Basic Income (UBI).

In a nutshell, advocates for UBI make the case that everyone contributes to society and therefore everyone deserves the right to a basic level of income irrespective of their financial circumstances and whether they’re on benefits.

There have been pilot schemes in the USA, Canada and Finland. In August 2021, 120 Germans started receiving £1,000 every month through a universal basic income trial that will run for three years.

In Summer 2020, an organisation called the Basic Income Conversation approached Local Trust and held a Zoom session with members of Big Local areas from across England to talk about what UBI is.

“We set up the Basic Income Conversation because we think the best way to represent these arguments is to allow people to talk from their personal experience. To hand over the idea of basic income to them and let them talk about how it would affect them,” says Basic Income Conversation co-founder Cleo Goodman.

They took it a step further, by hosting a series of Zoom sessions with individual Big Local areas through various stages of lockdown to explore the idea of a pilot scheme for UBI.

Even though we were sat indoors for most of 2020 through to spring 2021, sometimes staring at a computer screen that would freeze, or would intermittently cut out like a modern-day version of Norman Collier’s ‘broken mic’ sketch, Zoom (there are other services available) proved to be a liberating experience for some.

Because each Big Local is unique, they often operate in isolation. But through the pandemic, community leaders across the country were getting together online, sharing ideas and even co-hosting virtual coffee mornings.

The Big Local partnerships that expressed an interest in doing further sessions with the Basic Income Conversation included Thurnscoe in South Yorkshire, The Grange in East Finchley, Brookside in Telford, DY10 in Kidderminster, Boston in Lincolnshire, Wembley Central, Revoe in Blackpool and Central Jarrow.

In most cases, the participants had little or no prior knowledge of what UBI is and how it works. At the start of each session, the participants were asked what they would do with the extra money.

They often spoke about the impact it would have in terms of relieving stress within their communities, especially for those low-income households doing multiple jobs on zero-hour contracts or those who are and will struggle with the consequences of COVID on our economy.

With the removal of the temporary £20 uplift in Universal Credit in October 2021, coupled with an increase in fuel bills and inflation, those levels of stress are likely to increase throughout 2022.

The opening of a new community centre in Central Jarrow in 2016

“There are people who can’t see beyond a week or month,” said Big Local Central Jarrow member Angela Angus. “Holidays, culture and activities are blocked off to them.”

Dr Vicki McGowan is a research associate at Newcastle University. She has been working on a project around the health outcomes of volunteering and being part of the Big Local programme.

Her view is that “UBI would not only give you that stability while working a zero-hour contract, but it will also free up time to invest in yourself through retraining or volunteering. Right now, there is no spare time. You’re working all the hours you can because you don’t have a secure income.

“UBI takes that stress away around ‘have I got enough money for rent, for bills, for food?’ In areas of the north-east, we suffered through industrial changes in the 1980s. The inequalities between here and the rest of the country are huge. UBI could improve the health profile of the region.”

McGowan adds: “There’s this idea that people would spend it on booze and fags, but actually we’ve learned those individual lifestyle choices are responses to stress.”

COVID and lockdown sparked a surge in alcohol intake across the country. According to a report published in June 2020 from the Royal College of Psychiatrists more than 8.4m people in England were drinking at higher-risk levels. This was up from 4.8m in February.

And McGowan’s view is supported by the results from Southern Ontario’s UBI pilot scheme where around half of the subjects reported decreased use of alcohol and tobacco, while 79 per cent reported better physical wellbeing, and 83 per cent reported better mental wellbeing.

For Hannah Burman, UBI would allow her to build her own business, which was kick-started with a grant from Big Local Central Jarrow. Burman runs Even Better, a mental health social enterprise, and says, “My family has been impacted by coronavirus. My husband was made redundant. But UBI would mean I could concentrate all my time on Even Better rather than working other jobs to try to fund the thing I feel passionate about.”

As the sessions progressed, participants began to consider where would be the best location to hold a pilot scheme, and two clear schools of thought emerged. One is that it should be in an area with where need is deemed to be the highest. Another is that it needs to be in a location where poverty rubs shoulders with relative prosperity – a mixture of social housing, private renters and homeowners – to get an indication of what effect UBI has through a cross-section of society.

Central Jarrow has identified one such location, and it’s the first Big Local working with the Basic Income Conversation to engage with councillors and address questions around how a micro pilot would work in their community. They’ve also been speaking to universities about how they could study the scheme’s impact and potentially use it as a test case.

With the help of the Basic Income Conversation, Central Jarrow, Grange and DY10 are now running parallel community consultations to ask the communities what they think about a local micro-pilot in their area. They will turn this into a proposal for a community-led micro-pilot that will be published later this year.

“We’ve taken inspiration from the pilots in the USA that work with communities to demonstrate the impact a basic income could have. The Big Local areas could play a powerful role in showing the UK and the rest of the world how a place can be transformed by this kind of investment in its residents.”

cleo goodman

Much like the German model, this micro-pilot would have to be funded privately, but there are plenty of interested parties, trusts and foundations, who are willing to get behind a hyperlocal UBI scheme.

Realistically, even if pilot schemes proved to be successful, such a concept would take many years to be introduced at scale.

COVID, however, increased the extent to which many of us as individuals were exposed to risk. But it also provided a new focus on how we can, collectively, support each other.

So now we’ve got to start somewhere – and that somewhere just might be Central Jarrow.

Conclusion

In October 2020, prime minister Boris Johnson said: “History teaches us that events of this magnitude – wars, famines, plagues, events that affect the vast bulk of humanity, as this virus has – they don’t just come and go. They are, more often than not, the trigger for an acceleration of social and economic change.

“After all we have been through, it is not enough just to go back to before. We have lost too much, we have mourned too many. We have been through too much frustration and hardship just to settle for the status quo and to think that life can go on as before the plague, and we will not.”

History also teaches us that we shouldn’t always take a politician’s word at face value. Yet surely we’ve all been through too much not to settle for the status quo.

What happens next, though? Where do we go from here?

Two reports published in response to COVID, paint contrasting pictures about what sort of society we could become.

Unequal Britain was produced by King’s College London and looked at “Attitudes to Inequalities After COVID-19”. A group of 2,226 Brits made up of Labour and Conservative remain and leave voters were asked about public perceptions about the effects of the pandemic.

The report found that “Even in the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic and the restrictions introduced to control it, the public are more likely to say job losses caused by the coronavirus crisis are the result of personal failure than chance. Nearly half – 47 per cent – think people’s performance at work is important in determining whether they lose their jobs at this time, compared with 31 per cent who believe luck to be an important factor.”

So much for the post-COVID age of empathy.

But at a local level, there are more encouraging signs. The National Lottery Community Fund commissioned a survey to look at people’s attitudes towards their communities during the pandemic.

Between November and December, 7,009 people were polled across the UK. The survey revealed “While 32 per cent currently say they are involved in their local community, a further three in 10 (30 per cent) say they want to get more involved next year. This is higher among the very youngest (41 per cent of those aged under 34) who are already the most likely to say they are currently involved (41 per cent say they are).

“Three-quarters of people (75 per cent) say they think that local groups are important to their local community, compared to just 14 per cent who think they are not important. Large majorities also agree that these groups deserve more recognition (65 per cent) and have helped and supported during the pandemic (56 per cent).”

Volunteers from Elthorne Pride distribute complimentary store cupboard basics to members of the community at St Johns Community Centre on the Elthorne Estate in N19, London. 19/06/2020. Photo: Zute Lightfoot/Local Trust

Even if we never have another lockdown, and we adapt and learn to live with COVID, many Big Local areas are likely to feel the financial effects of COVID on top of the emotional cost.

Yet, many of those very same areas have demonstrated they can act swiftly to address social and economic challenges in ways that work for their communities.

One hopes this is recognised when it comes to allocating money for projects through the Towns Fund and the levelling up agenda – that residents will get a seat at the table, or at least receive a Zoom invite.

About the author

Ryan Herman was the author of ‘A level playing field‘, a Local Trust essay on the how sport can unite and transform communities. 

He is also a contributor for The New European, GQ, Rugby Journal and CA Magazine, and during his time as Local Trust Journalist-At-Large he wrote about Big Local projects for a broad range of titles including Vice and Arts Professional.

Ryan Herman was uniquely placed to document the stories of some of Big Local communities and how they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.  In March 2020 he was entering his sixth month of a yearlong residency as Local Trust’s journalist-at-large, tasked with visiting Big Local areas to tell the stories of community-led action. Unable to travel due to lockdown restrictions Ryan was more determined than ever to highlight the essential support these resident-led groups were providing their communities in a time of crisis and took to the phone and Zoom calls as a substitute, publishing their stories on the Local Trust website. It is through these accounts, we can witness people’s incredible resilience and ingenuity, as well as an inspiring ability to look beyond immediate crisis and learn from what was happening to think longer term to further improve their communities and to a certain degree, ensure they were resilient against future challenges to come.

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Published March 2022

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