About eight months ago, a fascinating social change began to ripple through hundreds of British neighbourhoods. Given the deluge of news that has happened since, it is easy to forget how remarkable it all seemed: droves of volunteers who were gripped by community spirit coming together to help deliver food and medicines to their vulnerable neighbours, check on the welfare of people experiencing poverty and loneliness, and much more besides. From a diverse range of places all over the country, the same essential message came through: the state was either absent or unreliable, so people were having to do things for themselves.
A couple of tantalising questions were triggered by all this. Would at least some of the energy and creativity that had been unleashed be sustained beyond the pandemic? And if that happened, might any of the people involved shift their attention to politics? Unfortunately, before any answers started to become clear, the end of the first lockdown saw many local efforts apparently being wound down or fizzling out.
Look closer, though, and it’s clear that in plenty of places, the basic structures of self-help have remained in place. And, in some areas, what seems to have kept the early lockdown spirit intact is the fact that on-the-ground work has been based around town and parish councils that were once barely visible; these are now run by energised community activists who have used recent localism laws to push their work way beyond such staple responsibilities as parks and bus shelters. They’re now blazing a trail for a new kind of ultra-local government.
I live in Frome in Somerset – where, in 2011, a town council with an annual budget of about £1m was wrested from the Tories and Lib Dems. A new group of self-styled independents began running things, with an accent on participation, sustainability, community wellbeing, and the rejection of traditional party politics. The same basic idea has now spread to about 15 other places: its name, coined by an inspirational councillor called Peter Macfadyen, is “flatpack democracy”.
In the first phase of the pandemic, the agile, open way that the town council now works came into its own. The town centre venue previously used for gigs and indoor markets was turned into a bustling food depot. Banners suddenly appeared everywhere, suggesting we all check in on five of our neighbours. Cyclists raced around town dropping off food and prescriptions. This work, which also includes help for local businesses, has carried on; the town council is now thinking hard about how to sustain it beyond the pandemic.
Something similar has happened in Queen’s Park, the London “civil parish” where a new community council held its first elections six years ago, and has dedicatedly worked on helping people through the crisis. But perhaps the most vivid story of all has transpired in Buckfastleigh – a small Devon town on the edge of Dartmoor with high levels of deprivation, and a town council run by a new force called the Buckfastleigh Independent Group, whose prime mover is former civil servant Pam Barrett.
Devon county council, she told me last week, gave the town only £500 for Covid response work during the first lockdown, about 13p per resident. But by that point, the independent-run town council had already directed £20,000 into a relief programme that stretched from supplies of food and medicines, through activity books for local children, to YouTube videos capturing the start of spring for people trapped indoors.
Now, Barrett says, new parents are worrying that their babies are becoming toddlers without having meaningfully socialised with other children, so the council is turning its attention to early-years provision. “We don’t have any public sector in Buckfastleigh any more,” she explains: she and her colleagues are not just filling gaps left by austerity, but basically reinventing local government from the ground up.
There and elsewhere, the key story of the Covid crisis has been that of town and parish councils enabling people to participate in community self-help. But as Macfadyen, Barrett and other flatpackers see it, the next chapter is about moving in the opposite direction, and trying to get people who have been involved in mutual aid to start running the places where they live. As part of the local elections scheduled for May 2021, there will be elections for a huge number of town and parish councils. So, online launch meetings are now being organised to bring people together, and mentors are being put in touch with those who might fancy standing for office. There is an accompanying initiative, partly rooted in the activism around Extinction Rebellion, called Trust the People, which has just started running courses in community organising, grassroots democracy and how to get involved in local decision-making.
These are early, tentative moves. But even in more orthodox parts of politics, you can sense something of the same mood. In the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, the Labour-run council has worked on a new way of collaborating with voluntary and grassroots groups that was a huge help in dealing with the pandemic (as the left-of-centre pressure group Compass put it, “a council working hand in hand with the community unleashed purpose, speed and agility”). From the other side of politics, it is worth reading a recent report by the Tory MP Danny Kruger, commissioned by the government to look at “sustaining the community spirit we saw during lockdown, into the recovery phase and beyond”. Kruger proposes a new Community Power Act, using deliberative democracy, participatory budgeting and citizen assemblies “to create the plural public square we need”.
Last week I spoke to Adam Hawley, a maths teacher who is trying to galvanise people to run for office in Hull, the city that has lately become a byword for the virus and the crisis it has caused. His focus goes beyond the town and parish level, to seats on the city council. Party politics, he says, seems “awful and embarrassing, and just unhelpful at a local level”. He talks about people’s experience of the Covid crisis, and “a sense that our institutions didn’t know how to respond in a very direct, or even human way”.
If the grassroots politics of 2020 can be boiled down to their essence, he says, it’s been “a big increase in the number of people getting involved in where they live, and looking for ways to do more of it”. These sound like simple enough things. But whether we can reshape our systems of power and politics to accommodate them strikes me as one of the key questions of this crisis, and the uncertain, turbulent future to come.
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist