Six family members sharing a bedroom with no device to learn or work on, an autistic child shaking the windows to escape the noise of his family, a mum losing work and fighting depression as she struggles to support her children — this has been the reality of many lives in lockdown. Two young black brothers told us that the first time they left their house in weeks for a short walk they were stopped by the police. Covid-19 and the accompanying lockdown haven’t treated us all equally.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown starkly the cost of accepting high levels of health and social inequality. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) residents and poorer communities are more likely to catch Covid-19 and more likely to lose their lives when they do. This didn’t happen by chance. It is a result of long-term, structural social, economic and health inequalities. And the economic consequence looks no better — the jobs most at risk through the crisis are the most insecure and the lowest paid.
We are writing jointly as the Leader of Camden Council and the Director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, which is based in Camden, because we believe that we have a once in a generation moment to turn today’s pain and loss into a coalition for lasting change. The story of the crisis in Camden shows the real cost of an unequal society and economy but also the power of places and communities, and their ability to lead change and recovery.
Now is the time for locally driven, purposeful economic growth and renewal.
Camden is a Borough in the heart of London that, within 22 square kilometres, contains all the complexities, contradictions and challenges of the UK and urban life in the 21st century.
‘‘If there is anywhere in Britain that could serve as a petri dish for examining race, class and culture, Camden would be that place.’’As Akala says in his book Natives
It’s home to the UK’s leading innovation district, world leading universities and cultural institutions like the British Museum, British Library, UCL and Central Saint Martins. Companies such as Google and Facebook, plus those around Kings Cross contribute in excess of £43bn Gross Value Added (GVA) per year (larger than Manchester and Birmingham combined). This rich cultural landscape is both a critical part of Camden’s (and Britain’s) economy, and also our social fabric.
Camden is also a place where next door to this enormous wealth, 40 percent of children grow up in poverty. We have some of the highest rates of homelessness in the country and, in the last year, five young people lost their lives to violence on our streets.
Most importantly, however, it is home to citizens who speak over 130 languages and has a radical history of civic action and people powered movements.
Camden 2025, which was written by a citizen’s assembly, sets out a community-led vision of a place where everyone has the chance to succeed, nobody gets left behind, and everybody has a voice.
Camden Council has been on a journey to unleash the power of our communities and ensure all who live here have a stake in the wealth and opportunity on their doorstep.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequality, and strengthened the community’s resolve to tackle it, based on these Camden values. In the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, the Council made a pledge to its community: it promised that no-one would go hungry, no-one would be evicted from their home, no care worker would lose money due to illness and all lives would be treated as valuable. These pledges reflect Camden Council’s ultimate purpose – to address the racial, health, educational, housing, digital and work inequalities that challenge our place and our community and prevent everyone from being able to succeed. To fulfil that promise, the Council mobilised a team of 2,000 volunteers and rolled out new services to combat hunger, support distressed businesses, address educational disparities and tackle other challenges triggered by Covid-19. Within seven weeks, it delivered more than 100,000 meals. It dispatched more than 80,000 pieces of PPE to frontline workers and care staff. It developed a £3 million hardship fund to support residents struggling with financial obligations. And it launched an enquiry into the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black, Asian and Minority-Ethnic residents.
It did not do these things alone.
Although central government’s response has focused on centralised planning and relied on local authorities to deliver their interventions, the reality is that the support people have received through this time has come from many places. Camden’s rich and vibrant community and voluntary sector have rallied in remarkable ways. Neighbours are supporting neighbours, and grass root activism has knitted these neighbours together in Mutual Aid groups. Tenant halls and community centres have set up food hubs, graffiti has been replaced with rainbows and streets lit up with the sound of applause and bagpipes celebrating our NHS.
Camden Council has built on existing partnerships with voluntary organisations to go further and do more together than either could do alone. In partnership with Age UK Camden, for example, redeployed Council staff have packaged food alongside volunteers and delivered parcels from repairs vans. The strength of these partnerships is testament to the Council’s commitment not to retrench from these spaces in recent decades, despite ever-diminishing core funding.
Now, as we look towards a recovery from Covid-19, we sit at a crossroads locally and nationally. As a country, we could pour money into trying to go back to how things were. But the economic model was failing people, characterized as it was by inequality and precarity, and damaging our planet. Camden’s economy was dynamic and successful by any traditional measure but also struggled with in-work poverty and structural exclusion for too many – particularly for BAME communities, disabled residents and single parents. Centralisation and diminished local public services after years of austerity has left too many communities feeling powerless to change.
This is the moment to renew our democracy and economy. We can harness the unique strengths of local governments and the places they serve to build a better future. We must use this opportunity to actively renew our economy and society, building new systems and structures that are inclusive and sustainable, and deliver on Camden’s vision for a place in which everyone can succeed, and everyone has a voice.
Camden’s story in recent months makes clear that councils have the local knowledge to rapidly identify community challenges; the local relationships to organise people; and the speed and agility to test and implement solutions. When local places are resourced and empowered to take action, they are capable of responding to crises and enabling local places to thrive in ways that central government cannot. This is true of the acute phase of the public health crisis as we fight the virus but also of the economic crisis which follows it
In recognition of this moment, we are pleased to announce the creation of Camden’s Economic Renewal Commission, a new taskforce that aims to promote a place-based recovery from Covid-19, generate public value and elevate the role of the public sector.
Together, the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose and the London Borough of Camden will combine their knowledge of place, innovation and values-led economic growth to co-chair the Commission.
The Commission will bring together community members, organisational experts, academic leaders and policy thinkers for active learning, vision setting and practical implementation.
We know that from Plymouth to Manchester there are communities who are doing the same and we invite all who want to help build this new future to join us. Our work is about Camden but also seeks to build a coalition of partners that understand that empowered places, given the tools they need, can drive a different model of growth. Working at a grassroots level, we can turn this crisis into a coalition to remake an economy that invests in every person in every community.
Please join us.