Given the sheer scale of the impact that COVID-19 has had on all of our lives, it can be easy to overlook the unique responsibilities that local governments have in the response to a global health crisis, while supporting their communities and residents. Local government also has a key role to play in the ongoing recovery process.
Since COVID-19 first became a spectre on the horizon of our collective consciousness, local councils across Australia have been responsible for not only practically implementing some of the public health measures announced by the federal and state governments, but they have been on the frontline of communicating with local residents about the social and economic impacts of the crisis.
However, as the closest level of government to the community, one of the most significant roles of local government has been to maintain social and community cohesion at a time when traditional ways of engaging and interacting with each other have been overturned.
How do you maintain a sense of community when people are stockpiling toilet paper and have to keep a minimum distance of 1.5m away from others?
The closure of parks, libraries and other community facilities, and the cancellation or postponement of countless local events are some of the practical impacts of public health measures. All of these are crucial in creating a sense of place and community. In times of fear and uncertainty, the impact of not having access to our regular support networks is exacerbated.
Technology and social media have a role to play in filling this gap in social connection. Neighbourhood Facebook groups have probably never seen so much activity, and many who swore they never would have admitted defeat and downloaded TikTok!
At Liverpool Council, we have definitely made use of technology by:
Shifting Council meetings and briefing sessions online
Developing the capacity to run District Forums, committee meetings and other resident-driven engagement opportunities online
Using social media platforms to engage our community in fresh ways, i.e. creating an entire digital arts program to ensure young people could still engage with the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre
In many cases, this has had a positive impact by introducing residents to Council’s activities, increasing awareness of what Council does and reducing their sense of social isolation by getting involved in their local community or neighbourhood in a different way.
However, technology can only go so far. The rapid move to more online services and dependence on digital infrastructure for even the most basic needs has highlighted the digital divide between people who can access affordable digital technology and those who can’t. We must acknowledge that our residents can fall anywhere along this spectrum of the divide. In this sense, the number of organic, local initiatives of people to reach out and connect with their neighbours has been truly inspiring. One of Liverpool Council’s most heart-warming initiatives has been to produce ‘neighbour support postcards’ to make it easier to do this.
The digital divide is but one aspect of the fact that the harshest impacts of the COVID-19 crisis have been borne disproportionately by the most vulnerable in our communities. Those who live in poverty or who are homeless, those living in abusive or violent environments, and refugees and asylum seekers are just some of the groups who have had their lives become exponentially harder.
To properly support those that have been hardest hit in our communities, collaboration between different government, non-government, private and other organisations is key. At times like this, these organisations have looked to local government for leadership, guidance and coordination of services.
The capacity of local government to facilitate collaboration between a range of different stakeholders has only been reinforced during the COVID-19 crisis, as it has initiated partnerships and opportunities to collaborate that may not have been possible previously.
One example of this is Liverpool Council’s establishment of a ‘COVID-19 Emergency Response Program’ to action timely requests for Council support towards critical services for vulnerable community groups, including rough sleepers, in the Local Government Area (LGA). This included allocation of funds for provision of food, accommodation, and PPE. As a result of this, public amenities at parks were kept open and shower facilities were made available for rough sleepers to have access to shower and handwashing facilities. It also involved allocating funds towards essential relief services and coordinating provision and distribution of food.
Another, broader, initiative of local government is the open letter, penned by the Local Government Mayoral Taskforce Supporting People Seeking Asylum, to the Prime Minister to extend critical support to people seeking asylum and refugees. Many asylum seekers and refugees work in the industries most affected by COVID-19 response measures and restrictions and have no access to Medicare or income support to balance loss of income.
If not properly addressed through policy, the social crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic may increase inequality, exclusion, discrimination and widespread unemployment in the medium and long term.
The economic impact of this public health crisis has been unprecedented. Small business has been disproportionately impacted, which has a direct impact on local communities. Furthermore, councils themselves are medium-large enterprises that employ thousands of people, many who are local residents.
Over the last few months, each LGA has designed economic response measures that align with the needs and impacts felt by their community. However, councils, as the closest form of government to the community, are once again at the forefront of communicating with local businesses and residents to grasp the scale of the economic impact.
Many councils have implemented business resilience programs to enable their local businesses to innovatively manage the challenges they face. Nobody knows what the road to economic recovery looks like, so it is important for relative speed and flexibility of local government response measures to be used. Whether this is through the roll out of targeted grants, fast-tracking local projects to ensure that jobs as many jobs are retained as possible, or assisting a local business to pivot and produce much needed PPE for health care workers, local government is able to develop a nuanced response to the unique challenges faced by each community.
Periods of rapid and intense change can create opportunities for ‘a new normal’. The economic and social cost of a global pandemic has fundamentally shaken assumptions about how organisations, communities and individuals relate to each other.
As we transition to a new normal, a challenge local government faces is to retain and build upon the partnerships developed and ensure that the measures to build community connectedness and reduce social harm are not lost.
A danger for local communities is to ensure appropriate balance between measures to improve regulatory responsiveness to an unprecedented situation and whether they actually benefit the community overall. Recently, the State Government has announced that they will fast track a range of planning assessments.
However, given the NSW Government’s track record of making sudden, significant and comprehensive changes to the planning and development system, there are real concerns around ensuring that the community has an effective voice in the process. What makes this more challenging is that many traditional forms of communicating such information, such as local newspapers, have ceased physical print runs and have their content locked behind a paywall. How can the local community then access information about developments and other issues in their neighbourhood?
Finally, local councils do not have crisis management contingencies in their budget and have strict regulations around how they can generate income. If there’s one lesson to come out of both the COVID-19 situation and the horrific bushfire season of 2019-20, it is that local government is the coalface of supporting their communities through such unexpected events.
I would be hard-pressed to find any council in Australia that will be in the black at the end of this financial year. In NSW, the Fit for the Future standards enforced by the NSW Government have not been updated in years and obviously do not account for the impact of COVID-19 community support measures on budgets in local government.