Britain is crying out for a better normal. Communities across the country are emerging from lockdown with a new sense of what is possible and what is necessary – and the answers to both go a lot further than Westminster’s efforts to drive the country back to business as usual.
That was the overriding impression from a two-week reporting trip around Britain, asking people in different regions how they view recovery and whether there is an appetite for more fundamental change.
The answer, overwhelmingly, was that we cannot just go back to the way things were, that there are elements brought out by lockdown that should continue, and that more needs to be done to prepare the country for the economic, mental health and climate crises to come.
During the two-week trip, the Guardian reported on some of the communities worst affected by Covid-19, most vulnerable to economic shocks, and most interested in transition to a healthier, cleaner and fairer way of life. I visited Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Hartlepool, Aberdeen, Machynlleth, Fishguard and Bristol.
Travelling by campervan, which doubled as a mobile office, hotel, restaurant and toilet, I interviewed more than 50 people, mostly in parks, hotels and shopping centres but also in a graveyard, and over phone and video calls. The Guardian also collaborated with YouGov to conduct a survey of more than 1,600 people.
The poll, carried out at the height of lockdown in May, found that the British public believed the pandemic had been bad for mental health (41% negative, 40% neutral and 16% positive) and bad for individual finances (31% worse off, 47% the same and 18% better off), but good for family relations (40% positive, 46% neutral and 11% negative).
They also said it had been excellent for air quality (66% positive, 20% neutral and 3% negative) and the overall health of the planet (75% positive, 12% neutral, 4% negative).
- Improve air quality by promoting home working, cycling, walking and public transport , all of which reduce pollution. Those who do need a car should be encouraged to use electric vehicles. State support for clean car manufacturing could create and protect jobs, especially in the West Midlands.
- Tackle inequality and unemployment with investments in energy efficient homes and low-carbon industry. To meet the UK’s net zero target, 2,000 home boilers a day will need to be converted to hydrogen or other clean energies. Front-loading this work would create a huge number of jobs. Thousands more could be created in carbon capture and storage projects, such as that planned for the north-east.
- Accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Oil and gas companies have shed thousands of jobs during lockdown. Meanwhile, wind and solar plants have proved they can provide cheap, stable electricity. Promoting a more rapid - and just - transition, with retraining and greater investment in clean power will modernise the UK economy, cut emissions and help workforces adapt, especially in places like Aberdeen that can no longer rely on North Sea oil.
- Diversify food production so the UK is more resilient to future shocks in the global supply system. Farmers should be supported to rebalance production away from meat for export and towards more fruit and vegetables for local markets, as well as stewardship of shared natural services like clean water, rich peatland and forests for flood protection. That will make the country more self-sufficient, cut emissions and reduce food miles, as rural areas in Fishguard and Machynlleth are finding.
- Empower local communities. The upsurge of neighbourhood support groups has been one of the big positives from lockdown and could be a building block for a more inclusive society. If mutual aid can be extended to mutual ownership - with city and national government support - more people would have a stake in protecting and nurturing common assets like green spaces and rivers, but also potentially wind turbines or solar plants, as a working class neighbourhood in Bristol is trying to do.
The journey revealed how quickly local communities had adapted to ease the worst impacts of lockdown and build on the benefits. Social centres, community-owned pubs, food banks, green groups and art cooperatives repurposed themselves within days to distribute food and medicine, set up online counselling and cooking classes, and provide emergency financial support – sometimes in the form of £50 in an envelope – for the many zero-hours contract workers who were suddenly unemployed but not immediately able to claim benefits.
“The virus gave us permission to be kind again,” said Sacha Bedding, manager of the Annexe community centre in Hartlepool. “We should celebrate the way communities have responded. Millions did a good thing.”
While communities have shown speed and strength, the national government has proved slow and inept. The UK has so badly botched its response that the country is now recording more weekly deaths than the 27 EU nations combined. Britain’s economy has suffered more than that of any country in the G7.
Harder to calculate is the emotional wellbeing of the nation, but the survey found higher levels of stress and many interviewees expressed concern about a looming wave of mental health problems.
In an analysis of possible post-Covid-19 scenarios drawn up by the Long Crisis Network, the most compelling is a weakening of national and city institutions as they struggle to cope with a wave of crises that resemble “the latter, more frenetic stages of Tetris”. Alternatively, it predicts that these national and municipal institutions will act as a platform for ideas that emerge from communities and online.
“Life becomes more local. The virtual is the new norm as physical travel seems daunting,” envisages the study. “Covid mutual aid networks evolve into essential assets in most places, balancing flexibility and informality, even providing hardship funds and peer-to-peer loans.” In many places, this is already happening.
The reporting trip revealed how low-income Hartlepool has been less affected economically than affluent, globalised Aberdeen, where the collapse of oil prices prompted North Sea drilling companies to sack rig workers and engineers.
In Hartlepool, a third of families were workless even before the pandemic struck. This meant the town had less to lose and its community support networks were already hardened by previous crises. “Instead of levelling up, we could see a levelling down,” Bedding warned. “Hartlepool could be the future for other towns.” Avoiding that means anticipating the next crisis rather than reacting only to the last.
After the financial crisis of 2008, the government put the onus for recovery on individuals by slashing public spending and encouraging UK consumers to splurge. That is less of an option now. Many people are still wary of entering shops and other public spaces. Despite the easing of the lockdown, most shopping centres were eerily empty. Angela Arnold, a coffee shop owner, said mindsets had shifted during lockdown. “I think it has changed people’s perceptions of shopping. We don’t just buy what we want. We feel like we have to justify it is what we need.”
The survey found that many people plan to improve themselves. Compared with life before the pandemic, the survey found people expect to keep in better touch with family and friends (48% more, 43% same, 6% less), visit parks (52% more, 38% same, 7% less), do physical exercise (50% more, 41% no change, 6% less), socialise with neighbours (33% more, 56% no change, 8% less) and eat healthily (38% more, 55% no change, 3% less). Respondents also said they aspired to drink less alcohol, produce less household rubbish and recycle more.
There is also hope that lockdown will be good for the environment: 47% of people think it will be positive, 29% expect no change, and only 10% feel it will make things worse.
But these good intentions could fade quickly without a strong sign from the government that the UK will not drift back to environmentally destructive economic habits. For all the prime minister’s talk of a “fairer, greener recovery”, he seems more interested in pouring concrete, laying tarmac and encouraging consumption.
During the trip, mayors and academics said more could be gained if the state opened its wallet with investments to modernise the economy, create jobs and cut emissions.
Car manufacturers need a jumpstart to switch production to electric vehicles, or they will be left behind by foreign competitors. In the north-east, plans for Europe’s biggest carbon capture and storage plant will give work to thousands and help cut emissions. In Aberdeen, wind turbine makers and hydrogen gas developers are creating jobs while oil companies are shedding workers.
Across the country, the biggest employment boost could come from converting home heating systems. Although this may be less politically attractive to the prime minister than building “Boris hospitals”, it will do more to end fuel poverty and create jobs. The nation needs to convert 2,000 home gas boilers every day until 2050 to reach its legally binding net-zero carbon goal.
There are also huge gains to be had from greater self-sufficiency and diversity in energy and food. At a community level, this is already happening. In Wales, the “land army” of volunteer workers are sharing their first harvest among the needy, promoting a “buy local” movement, and encouraging sheep farmers to devote more of their land to fruit and vegetables to reduce the risks of shortages and price spikes from imports. In Bristol, the working-class community of Lawrence Weston has opened a lockdown support centre and plans to build its own wind turbine, which would give it a revenue stream for the next 30 years.
Such strategic planning is essential. Community leaders know the health crisis is certain to be followed by a tsunami of unemployment, bankruptcies and mental health problems, and the ever more catastrophic effects of climate breakdown. As a result, resilience has gone from being a trendy buzzword for policy wonks to a priority for survival. During the lockdown, communities have shown themselves to be nimble and creative in these regards.
This could be a building block for the future. Lucy Stone, a Dorset-based social entrepreneur who set up a community energy project in her village, believes collective local initiatives are creating a culture of “commoning” – sharing ownership, risks, benefits and decision-making. “You literally give people a stake. You don’t just consult them,” she observed. “This approach could accelerate action on climate and address the inequalities embedded in our current fossil fuel systems.”
That is a far cry from Boris Johnson’s “build, build, build” attempt to return to business as usual. But it could bring people together, focus more on wellbeing than profit, and make the country more resilient to future shocks. It would also represent change on the scale the public desires.