Coronavirus has exposed a desperate need for localism

The Guardian, by Simon Jenkins
20th March 2020

A new Beveridge-style report on the welfare of communities could help our traumatised minds focus on the future.

At the height of the blitz in 1941, the labour minister Ernie Bevin so disliked an official called William Beveridge that he got rid of him to write a report on national insurance. As the bombs fell, an angry Beveridge proposed an entire postwar “welfare state”, with financial security “from cradle to grave”. No one seemed to mind the cost. There was a war on. The rest is history.

There is no war today, just politicians who love comparing their roles to those of their blitz counterparts. But every crisis is an opportunity. What might emerge from coronavirus that is on a par with Beveridge?

The welfare state is not equipped for pandemic or economic trauma. Its NHS gigantism and lumbering benefits regime are slow moving and often inhumane. Private citizens are having to use technology to fall back on otherwise eerily medieval forms of support. My street has a WhatsApp group to help the housebound elderly. A Gloucestershire pub is home-delivering its drinks, and food. A Devon farmer offers drive-in produce, with volunteer dance classes, hairdressing and a nursery.

These and a thousand other ventures are struggling to relieve distress, loneliness and, in many cases, financial ruin. But they are handicapped by the disappearance over recent decades of all that is vital in British neighbourhoods: high streets, police stations, banks, libraries, youth clubs, day centres and cottage hospitals. People have been forced back on neighbours, on geography. When systems fail, geography matters. They can’t stop you walking down the street. Not yet.

Beveridge sought a state that provided everyone who needed it with cash and care. But he was writing at a time when his beneficiaries also relied on institutional good neighbourliness. Today that has gone. We need local testing centres, local food supplies, local elderly care, local employment assistance, above all, local leadership. Unlike in continental Europe, the UK has almost no civic mayors, no public administrators who know their clients. These are replaced by distant, form-waving bureaucrats.

Most marked at present is food security. High streets have been shutting at an alarming rate. Goodness knows what will be left when the virus relents. British food retailing relies on private supply chains, and these, as shown in a new book, Feeding Britain by Tim Lang, are highly vulnerable to short-term shocks. Half of the UK’s food now comes from abroad, Lang says, and 90% of fruit and vegetables. First go the toilet rolls, then what?

A new Beveridge should grasp the gaps in social cohesion that are being revealed by coronavirus. The components of a “village” matter – be it rural hamlet, market town or city street – and they are not binary. They are not conditioned by a corporatist state on the one hand and a capitalist free-market on the other. An intermediate tier of “association” has been ripped away, the businesses, the encounters and activities that lubricate community. As Robert Putnam wrote of the US, Britain now “goes bowling alone”.

Happiness theory is supposedly in fashion. But rarely is it related to localism. The local seems trivial. Its appeal crumbles before the target-driven bulldozer of Beveridge’s central state. I am sure the NHS campaign to close cottage hospitals, like the Home Office’s to replace police stations with patrol cars, passed every quantifiable test. No one counted the naked insecurity of the resulting communities. What is unquantifiable in modern government does not register.

Close one pub in a high street and it is one less nuisance. Close the last pub, and the street loses its heart. British pubs are closing at a rate of some 900 a year. Build over one playing field, too bad. But some 700 pitches have closed in the past decade, and obesity rates have soared. Some 5,000 parish churches lie virtually empty. No one has an idea what do with them.

Like a brick removed from a wall, each closure of a local institution may be an economy. Close them all and social association collapses. We lose what de Tocqueville called democracy’s “mother science … the spirit of association”. Its absence turns nations into “atomised” states, vulnerable to autocratic populism.

For the present, the British government is rushing troops to the front. It is waiving taxes and rents, offering grants and loans. It is even moving hesitantly where it once feared to tread, towards cash-in-hand “helicopter” money, or “people’s quantitative easing”. Those of us who suggested this during the 2008 crisis were ridiculed for printing money and “giving it to just anyone”. As it was, QE vanished into the maw of banks. Now even Donald Trump is in favour, offering $1,000 cheques to families.

This is merely short term. I believe a new Beveridge might, as did the old one, take our minds off the traumatised present and look to the future. It would ask what are the essential components of what we mean by community, be they social or private enterprise, retail, therapeutic, leisure or cultural. It would consider what regulatory and financial support they need to help keep communities alive as social entities. As the saying now goes, what are their true foundational values?

The British government is already compiling “public goods” to be expected – and subsidised – from farmers, in place of EU agricultural policy. They are identifying birds, bees, soil, trees, hedgerows, streams, even beauty. But if birds and bees merit such guardianship, why not the environment of human beings? What about the “public goods” that are embraced by towns and cities?

Government seems to value the institutions of nature, but not those of humanity. During the last great crisis, we were delivered a blueprint for a welfare state. Now we need one for welfare communities, and they are not the same thing.