Across the political and media landscape, there is no shortage of reference to the potential for a ‘Roaring Twenties’ style recovery as we finally emerge from the majority of restrictions associated with Covid, which have been in place for the majority of the past two years. However, will local government be dancing and singing or is it another false dawn in terms of the prospect of better times ahead?
Whilst the 1920’s have been long considered as a decade of progress, following a global pandemic, which brought trauma to society, it is important to also acknowledge that the 1920s were anything but roaring for many in the UK, instead characterised by growing unemployment, stagnating wages and sluggish productivity.
In any attempts to draw parallels with the present it’s important to not get too carried away with a positive bias. History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. As with the 1920s, today’s economic and political landscape is strewn with messy public policy issues that could stifle any roar into a whimper.
Local government understands these thorny issues all too well and whilst there was some celebration of a better-than-expected financial settlement for the sector in the comprehensive spending review, there was very quickly a dawning realisation that it fell significantly short of not only addressing projected budget gaps for the period but also in playing catch up on what had been lost during a decade of austerity.
The mood has hardly improved given rising costs for supplies, services and labour – with inflation north of 5%. How increased energy costs and a pay award to a well deserving workforce will be absorbed in final 2022 / 2023 budget setting will be vexing councils at present up and down the land.
The coming months are likely to see a transition back to a more unrestricted version of society, but as we emerge from the dark pandemic tunnel, blinking in the sunlight, it will not be too long before councils’ minds will need to turn once again to making progress on major issues such as climate change, local economies, care, digitalisation and housing.
As Jay Gatsby discovers in F Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic tale of 1920s gilded luxury, you can’t repeat the past. It is important policy-makers also reflect on this, avoid flapping and ensure local authorities are well-equipped to deal with what is likely to be a period of rapid transformation of society.