Since May 15th 2020 I have produced a series of pieces called The CV-19 impact published here online. I’ve been trying to think through what has happened to us during the pandemic. This post is separate but if you want some background to my thinking then be my guest.
What might a local action plan involve in our situation? Do we need to plan? A group of people in our local Mutual Aid group have spent three one-hour sessions discussing a local action plan to build back better after the Covid-19 pandemic. The aim is to make our neighbourhood more ‘liveable’, more resilient and more inclusive. The UK government’s strategy will lead to a further increase in infections during the autumn and winter and it may be hopeful to think of a just recovery, particularly as the impacts of the pandemic will be leading to greater inequality and hardship for those on low incomes. Food prices and unemployment will rise. The virus will remain current in the UK population for the foreseeable future. There may be other complex ecological and economic shocks. This makes what emerged as our main concern, resilience, even more crucial.
We quickly realised that a ‘neighbourhood plan’ , a statutory mechanism allowing a neighbourhood forum to intervene in planning under the Localism Act (2011), was not what we needed but the neighbourhood plan ‘road map’ had some useful procedural guidelines to share. We could see that the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development had produced a Build Back Better strategy in June 2020 that resonated our basic values but we had to look at how the policies outlined could be applied to an inner city area. Eventually we realised that we needed to get broad participation in the idea of building back better by making a public event or series of public events otherwise the activity would be based on meetings and quite exclusively oriented towards data-gathering and priority-setting and target-definition. It would be no good for us to have a worked out local plan with no popular support. The Mutual Aid movement which is inspirationally effective here was based on doing things and people that did things tended not to want to come to a lot of meetings. We really needed to drive any cooperative action forward though ensuring inclusiveness, this particularly related to all the different communities that live around here. We needed to put the people who were usually excluded at the centre of our activities.
The next lesson was that planning couldn’t be separated from action and that planning was a process. Because people considered the environment to be a priority – the impact of the decrease of traffic on air quality during the lockdown, for example, had been remarkable – we could call on the experience of other ecological movements like the Transition Network . They had used ‘auditing’ or ‘evidence gathering’ as a primary activity in the movement of a local area towards sustainability. We would need to start this activity of reaching out/auditing/gathering evidence, renewing, extending and deepening our knowledge of the area at the same time as undertaking activities that brought people together. People were also very concerned that the next stage of local activism should continue and build on the work of the Mutual Aid movement.
We needed to aim at a participatory event or series of events where people were making something together at the same time as extending inclusion and building participation.
So what might the development of a local action plan look like? We would need to ensure that we made contact with all the communities in our area. This would give us an active big picture of the diversity of our local population. We would need to ask them to give an account of their experience of the lockdown and begin to ask how we could work together to create a more resilient community. We need more than a questionnaire. One idea was to base the communal activity on children’s drawing. We would need a theme. An additional idea was to have a parade or procession that would make its way around the whole area and collect the young people’s drawings adding them to a big book. At the end of the day we could present the book and celebrate its publication. Later we could make it available online and in a hardcopy edition. The procession could be accompanied by drums and music. One thought was that a processional dragon could be constructed over the summer and this could be paraded around with the music and the collection of drawings. If the dragon was a rainbow dragon it would resonate with a symbol often used over the lockdown to show community togetherness. The rainbow serpent or dragon is a profound and joyful symbol of coalition and solidarity. It transcends difference and summons a myth of collective creativity.
We devoted some time to talking about what might form the subsequent stage of our action plan. This was a conversation about food as a central issue for community resilience. A lot of the work of the Mutual Aid movement has been about food distribution especially to people who hadn’t enough money to buy it. Already the community cooking local WhatsApp group was the the most alive during the lockdown. Because of the diversity of cultures the sharing of food could be really joyful. Food involves issues of equality. It engages directly with poverty and wealth distribution. We talked about the fact that some people in our area don’t have a cooker. It could lead to talking about growing food locally and about health and well-being issues. Could we find out where food was coming from into the local community and find better ways of sharing and improving the quality and supply of food? Could we audit the average current nutritional levels and see if we can increase these levels by community action? Is it possible to make our area more equal?
As we talked we were mindful of the importance of connectivity, of engaging with local government, of thinking about increasing capabilities and skills, of the quality of work, of economic equality. Also we were aware that there was already a strong active group bringing local parents together to take action for better air quality. The area is subject to pollution from an extremely busy circulatory road system.
The shortcomings of the government are obvious. Where is resistance to come from if not from local areas, taking control? We now know that local outbreaks of the infection caused by the virus will be the focus of government lockdown strategies. Health and well-being concerns will become more and more grounded in neighbourhood action.