Sunday, 5 April 2020

After Corona: rebuilding Britain

This blog has long argued for greater localism. It makes sense for plenty of reasons but now it becomes a matter of national urgency. What we are dealing with is not one outbreak, rather it’s lots of outbreaks at different stages, starting at different times that all need to be tackled locally through local teams, and local action plans in each area so measures can be lifted over time.

That we have allowed our basic public health provisions to be centralised and merged has robbed local authorities of their central functions which not only puts us all at risk, it changes the culture of local government to become regional development agencies with social nudge units. It's not at all surprising that local politics doesn't attract talented people because if you want to influence policy locally you have to go through the Whitehall technocracy. Local democracy is a largely toothless ritual.

Over the years local democracy has atrophied to become something most of us can't be bothered to engage in because it has no real significance to us short of ordering a new bin and paying the council tax, much of which is managed according within parameters defined by Brussels and Whitehall and administered by unelected council CEOs where there is no real consequence for failure.

This is partly why Brexit without a movement to exploit the political momentum it created will fall flat. We've railed against the rule of unelected bureaucrats but even by cutting Brussels out of the loop, policy tools vital to our very survival are not within reach of people we elect. Democratic assemblies have been neutered. We hold periodic voting rituals but they don't mean anything.

This is where Corona will expose the many deficiencies. With local recycling centres closed and fly tipping mounting up everywhere, when it comes to sorting the legacy issues, councils are still going to be bound by obsolete statutory requirements and targets that prevent local authorities innovating and seeking their own solutions. Right now it's entirely reasonable to reconsider our phobia of landfill, especially now we can't ship waste in containers to the slums of the world.

Beyond the more immediate questions of sanitation, if Corona hits as hard as expected then we are likely looking at the death of city centre retail. A lot of big names were already circling the drain locked into unsustainable rents inside white elephant shopping centres built under the guise of regeneration. We are going to have to repurpose and repopulate towns, which presents a great many opportunities for innovation. Previously we've built self-contained schools and hospitals away from central business districts, but why can't a Debenhams in a Westfield centre be repurposed as a community clinic or high school?

I've long felt that much of our policymaking was there to prop up an expiring paradigm simply because we have no idea what else to do and anything radical comes with too much social collateral damage but since that is now something of a moot point thanks to a highly contagious deadly pathogen, some of the more madcap ideas suddenly seem entirely within the realms of the possible and on reflection, highly desirable. Now is the time to make them happen and to take our democracy back. 

Right now it's insensitive to say it but Coronavirus is not without its silver linings. For a long time now we've been ignoring mounting social pressures simply because they are politically inconvenient and contrary to the liberal narrative that diversity is our strength. We now see as Roma Slovaks in Sheffield are completely ignoring Corona lockdown measures that this is no longer something we can afford to ignore. We have to tackle housing overcrowding and we have to get to grips with immigration.

Meanwhile, Brits can no longer afford to be fussy about the jobs they will and won't do. Since we are leaving the single market (which may even be in danger of collapsing) we are going to have to repatriate a great deal of agricultural production and put people to work. All the while our bloated academic research establishment will have to drop its gender and climate indulgences and get to work on building biosecurity and system resilience into our governance, supply chains and energy production. And perhaps thanks to Corona we shall finally realise that most of our commutes are a pointless waste of time.

Though the the prospect of a Corona depression are quite real there is also cause for a hope. All the fundamentals for recovery are there. We have a knowledge economy that will finally be unleashed from under a weight of red tape and bureaucracy that just won't survive in the new order if we want to get things done. The parasitism of Human Resources dogma will have to go on the bonfire.

Since the Brexit vote the UK has undergone a period of introspection where the liberalism of yore has come into question, where there is clearly a yearning for more communitarianism and localism, not least to fill a spiritual hole that globalisation and cheap consumables cannot fill. Much of or lazy and unhealthy habits stem from having everything we could possibly want at our fingertips yet we are no happier for it - perhaps explaining the rise of transgenderism (the new anorexia). Ironically the Corona sickness of the body might well be the cure for the sickness of our national soul.

In recent years I have been concerned by the rise of world war two memorial fetishism with ever more garish and tacky memorials popping up all over the shop where D-Day and the Battle of Britain have become our new foundation myths - the last time the country faced adversity together. It's not so much a pining for empire as a pining for a sense of shared endeavour and national purpose. By coming together to rebuild we may discover a new sense of Britishness and have some accomplishments of our own to stand on. It might actually be that Corona was the Brexit we voted for. 

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