Londoners, in common with the rest of the country, are “very stoic” – following lockdown rules and drawing on a sense of neighbourhood and community not often recognised before the current crisis. That was the message from leading pollster Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos Mori, speaking alongside Waltham Forest Council leader Clare Coghill in the first of a new series of online talks to launch research on the capital’s response to coronavirus and what recovery might look like, staged by the Centre for London think tank.
The growth of neighbourhood support groups, as well as Londoners reporting more contact, albeit virtual, with friends and family, confirmed the results of regular Ipsos Mori polling over many years for the London Councils body representing local authorities in the capital, that London is a place of cohesive local areas where residents get on well together regardless of their background, Page said.
The community response in Waltham Forest has confirmed that analysis, said Coghill, with her borough drawing on its experience as the first London Borough of Culture last year, an existing network of volunteers, and a strong sense of borough identity. “That spirit has translated directly into the current situation, she said, “with the overarching goal to get all of our residents through this as safely as possible”. And the crisis had underlined the importance of the capital’s local councils. “We are the doers,” she said.
Council staff had made tremendous efforts – getting homeless people into shelter, shifting 30 people a day in Waltham Forest from hospital into community care, supporting vulnerable adults and young people and providing education for key workers’ children and children at risk. One thousand, eight hundred Waltham Forest staff are now set up to work from home, a rise from just 200, with some 200 staff redeployed into key roles, “doing completely different jobs” from before.
Key issues, Coghill added, include sustaining staff efforts with time to rest or take leave, and the need to work closely with community networks in dealing with issues where volunteers lacked experience. “Social workers have always been under-valued, unsung heroes,” she said. “But it’s their capacity to support highly vulnerable people, adults and children, which is massively important if we are to get through this.”
While it was too early to predict the nature of the recovery, the trend towards more working from home and new patterns of commuting, fuelled by technology and demonstrated by a fall in public transport passenger numbers even before the crisis, was apparent, said Page. Residential and office space in Central London could become more affordable, with the pressure on housing reducing as residents moved out to work from home and commute less, but the central economy might suffer. “Will consumers be scared to go out and start spending or feel uncomfortable in a crowded theatre?” he asked. Or would the new “activist state” go “hell for leather” to restart the economy, even in ways running contrary to increasing concern for the environment?
But with the lockdown already bringing about dramatic improvements in London’s air quality on top of the impact of Sadiq Khan’s Ultra-low Emission Zone introduced last year, Londoners would no longer tolerate the risks of pollution, said Coghill. Waltham Forest residents were already looking for new ways of working, with less commuting and an improved quality of life, she said. “If we lose those gains by just going back to business as usual that will be a tragedy on a big scale. And such a missed opportunity.” The Mayor should now be looking to support “loads more ‘mini-Hollands’,” she said. The Transport For London-funded schemes, designed to reduce car use and encourage cycling and walking, were pioneered in Waltham Forest.
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