Part 2: COVID-19 a catalyst for positive change?

23 December 2020
  • Recovering with ambition: How COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for positive change, some examples from outside Wales.

    Part 2: Recovering with ambition: Recovery Outside Wales

    This is the second blog in a series exploring COVID-19 as a catalyst for positive change, the first post is here. If you would like to contribute to the conversation, please contact us via

    In our previous blog we described a framework for structuring reflection and highlighted the focus and approach within Wales, with some councils looking to embed more efficient ways of working and ending bureaucratic processes that can often cause as much harm as good. 

    As councils look at how they can build back after the pandemic, we look outside of Wales to see how other countries are approaching this challenge. Drawing this together, Nick Selwyn reflects on some of the differences in other countries with Wales and concludes with a question – Are we ambitious enough?

    COVID-19 has altered people’s lives in both enormous and small ways. And it’s been no different for councils in Wales. They have had to respond in ways that 12 months ago were unthinkable; to deal with problems that were unknown; and mostly not planned for.

    They have done a magnificent job maintaining services in this rapidly changing and uncertain world. They are to be applauded for their hard work and perseverance.

    As we get used to life with COVID-19, public bodies across the world are switching from responding to recovering. Looking wider and outside of our boundaries, what are others doing?

    Getting your house in order is important, but it’s the starting point

    Universally public bodies recognise that it’s not enough to aim for a return to the status quo – the pandemic has shown that wasn’t working – and every organisation needs to take the opportunity to refresh and change what it does. And as we noted in our earlier blogs, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Lab's framework [opens in new window] is a great starting point to help you do this. It’s a useful tool that helps you pause, reflect and make sense of what has happened over the last 9 months.

    The framework is a 2x2 table, with the vertical axis labelled as ‘practice stopped or started during crisis’ and the horizontal axis labelled ‘practice stopped or started post-crisis’. It goes on to offer classifications for both new and old, either begun or stopped during the crisis.

    New practice is described as either:

    • Practice that should be amplified because ‘we’ve been able to try these new things and they show some signs of promise for the future’
    • Practice that should end because ‘we’ve done these things to respond to immediate demands but they are specific to the crisis’

    Old practice is described as:

    • Practice that should be restarted because ‘we’ve had to stop these things to focus on the crisis but they need to be picked up in some form’
    • Practice that should be let go because ‘we’ve been able to stop doing these things that were already/are now unfit for purpose’

    But what else could and should you do? From our international research it comes down to ‘thinking big and being bold’.

    Think big and be bold

    A number of local and regional governments are focussed in recovery planning on the communities they represent and the people they serve. They concentrate less on how they work and are looking to use COVID-19 as a once in a generation opportunity to shape a new world.

    We can see from the examples below that the size of the organisations has not limited their ambition. Whangārei the smallest authority with 91,000 residents is being equally as bold as New South Wales, an Australian state with a population of 7.3 million.

    Whangārei – a council area of 91,000 people

    Whangārei District Council, located at the top of the North Island of New Zealand, has developed a COVID-19 Response Strategy [opens in new window] that provides an overview of the likely impacts on the Whangārei economy. In particular, the sectors likely to be hardest hit and take the longest to recover. This data rich strategy focuses on the economic recovery of local businesses. But also acknowledges the link between the thriving businesses and community wellbeing. It has three core phases:

    1. Restart: Respond to immediate impacts on key economic sectors
    2. Recovery: Support ongoing economic recovery across the District
    3. Reset: Reset to a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable economy

    Hounslow – a London borough of 270,000 people

    The London Borough of Hounslow’s recovery plan brings together four months of work with a range of organisations, businesses, voluntary and community groups, academics and residents. One Hounslow Forward Together [PDF opens in new window] sets out the major interventions the Council is undertaking based around four themes – renewing local economies, empowering local residents, tackling local inequalities and reimagining local places.

    Lockdown shone a light on poverty for Hounslow. Overcrowded housing meant that more people were likely to catch the disease and more likely to die from it, due to the inequalities of deprivation, poverty and poor health. Hardest hit were members of the black and ethnic minority community.

    Lockdown also changed the environment, bringing cleaner air and allowed residents to experience what a greener London could be like. The importance of access to green space, creating safe and pleasant walking and cycling routes to improve people’s health and tackling climate change is now seen as essential. 

    The plan sets out six key principles for all public bodies in Hounslow to use in recovering from COVID-19:

    1. Work as one
    2. Act local
    3. Champion the borough
    4. Focus on prevention
    5. Support communities
    6. Use evidence

    Melbourne – a city of 4.4 million people

    Melbourne’s COVID-19 reactivation and recovery plan – City of the Future [opens in new window] – has a thirty year time frame with four distinct phases – Respond; Recover; Regenerate; and Future Aspirations.

    The City Government has two core programmes: prioritise public health and wellbeing; and reactivate the city. Unashamedly the approach is outward focussed and sets an aspirational view of what a vibrant, sustainable and culturally rich Melbourne will look like in 2050. Yes, they look at what they can do as an organisation to get their systems and processes  working well, but they are using the pandemic as a catalyst to deliver societal change. To make Melbourne a better place to live, work and enjoy.

    New South Wales – a state with 7.3 million people

    The New South Wales State Government see the pandemic as an opportunity to build back a better and stronger economy and to reset the relationship between State and Federal government. The COVID-19 Recovery Plan [opens in new window] has six priorities:

    1. Infrastructure pipeline – using state monies to harness the innovations and stimulate the economy;
    2. Planning and precincts – a dedicated team to remove blockages in the planning system and make it work for New South Wales;
    3. Education and skills – equipping students for the jobs of the future;
    4. Digitisation – to become world leaders in digital public services and recast the relationship between citizens and government;
    5. Advanced manufacturing and local supply chains – building a self-sufficient economy that works for New South Wales; and
    6. Federal v State relations – removing duplication, have less red tape and less overlap.

    Are we being bold enough in Wales?

    The other blogs in this series have finished on a series of questions, but here there is only one.

    Being strategic in how local governments design policy responses, can achieve both short and long-term outcomes that benefit all of us. Planning for that, however, must start immediately and must be ambitious.

    If we get it right, the response to COVID-19 may not only minimise pain and suffering now, but can also build the foundation for a greener, safer, and more prosperous future. Be ambitious, be bold.

    Which leads me to my starting question – Is Wales being ambitious enough in responding to COVID-19?

    About the author

    Nick Selwyn is a Local Government Manager at Audit Wales, with responsibilities for our programme of all-Wales local government studies and our work with Fire and Rescue and National Park authorities. Prior to joining Audit Wales 15 years ago he worked for several local authorities in housing and social care and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Housing.