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Path Clearing, Policy Acceleration or Trend Reinforcement: Potential Implications of Selected Local Government Responses to Covid-19 in the UK

Tony Gore, Emma Bimpson, Julian Dobson and Stephen Parkes

Abstract

Since its onset in 2020 Covid-19 impacts have engendered rapid interventions across all policy domains and at all scales of government. This has prompted lively debate around the wider significance and longer-term implications of such moves with regard to their role as potential 'punctuations' within a broader policy paradigm shift. This includes acting as a ‘path-clearing’ mechanism that heralds a move towards a different approach; representing the onset of ‘path deviation’ towards such a change; quickly adding to the implementation of new ideas in a process of 'policy acceleration’; or essentially replicating existing patterns to provide 'trend reinforcement'. This paper applies these concepts to a wide range of evidence on local government responses to Covid-19 across the United Kingdom (UK). The analysis focuses on five selected domains: supporting and coordinating mutual aid; maintaining local economies; addressing homelessness; managing parks and other public spaces; and promoting active travel through road space reallocation. Developments in each of these areas are framed by both wider operational and existing policy contexts, as well as with respect to geographical and sectoral variations. The conclusion is that evidence exists for all four types of 'punctuation', but the patterns are inconsistent both between and within different local authorities and policy domains.

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This research was supported by a grant from Sheffield Hallam University's Research Excellence Framework fund.

Introduction

Aims and structure

1The worldwide spread and persistence of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) after the spring of 2020 provoked a rapid – and rapidly changing –response from national, regional and local governments in all countries, albeit with varying degrees of consistency and coordination. In essence, this entailed striking a balance between the prevention (or containment) of infection across the population and the maintenance of essential economic and social activities, including the provision of public services. At the same time, it underlined the main ways in which local government influences public health matters: through civic leadership; as an employer and anchor institution; via the commissioning, contracting and provision of services; through planning, licensing and other regulatory activities; and as a champion and enabler of both preventative and health-promoting behaviours (LGA, 2020a; Marmot et al., 2020).

2In this sense, the United Kingdom (UK) was no different, even though its asymmetrical sub-national government structures produced their own idiosyncrasies and variations. The purpose of this article is to assess the extent to which local government responses in this one country potentially represented either a 'policy punctuation', heralding changes in the principles and types of intervention that characterise different domains, or whether they amounted to little more than 'trend reinforcement', underpinning the persistence of the dominant policy paradigm. To achieve this aim the paper focuses on five policy domains, namely: supporting and coordinating mutual aid, maintaining local economies, addressing homelessness and rough-sleeping, managing parks and other public spaces, and promoting active travel through road space reallocation. These topics were chosen partly on the basis of the authors' existing knowledge and expertise, and partly because they represent domains where local authorities in the UK are still actively involved in both policy design and implementation. While clearly they also oversee important arenas with much larger budgets such as education, social care and public transport, these are generally administered by means of contractual, regulatory and enabling tools rather than via direct provision. As such, local government inevitably has much less influence in terms of policy and practice change in these spheres. While this means that the analysis remains essentially illustrative rather than comprehensive in nature, the similarities and contrasts across these five domains underline the extent to which policy change at the local scale tends to vary by both theme and place rather than as an ubiquitous or simultaneous occurrence.

3Following an outline of evidence sources the paper is structured in the following way. First, the conceptual framework for the analysis is outlined, based on different types of ‘punctuation’ along a ‘policy path’ or ‘trajectory’. Second, recent trends in local government operation in the UK are summarised, including a brief examination of shifts in the predominant local government ethos and theoretical underpinnings in the years immediately preceding the Covid-19 outbreak. Third, the responses of local authorities in the UK across the five policy domains are assessed with regard to the extent to which they represent ‘path-clearing’, 'path deviation', ‘policy acceleration’ or 'trend reinforcement' in terms of the presence or absence of new ideas, approaches and measures compared with prevailing policy frames and directions. The final section presents a brief concluding summary of the overall analysis.

Sources and methods

4Evidence was primarily assembled via desk-based review of a vast range of secondary material, including reports from public bodies, the voluntary sector, consultancies and think tanks; academic books, articles and monographs; and news items from national, local, professional and trade media. While no selectivity was applied in what was included in this published evidence, our analysis sought to strike a balance between positive and negative perspectives, especially given the tendency for the former to dominate. These sources were supplemented wherever possible with the results of primary research conducted by the authors and other colleagues, the latter gleaned both from their publications and through informal discussions. These studies involved a range of approaches, including participant questionnaires and interviews, online forum discussions, and consultations with policy and project managers. The initial collation of available information was contained in a working paper published under the aegis of the International Geographical Union's Commission on the Geography of Governance (Gore et al., 2021). This article builds on those findings by expanding the evidence base with more recent information and by synthesising the key themes within a more explicit conceptual framework. The main analytical test was the extent to which local government policy and practice have displayed elements of a new approach, or whether they have remained in alignment with existing trends. In doing so, the analysis utilised the 'policy path' lens in a relatively unaltered way to assess the significance (or otherwise) of local government responses to the pandemic in the UK.

5Despite the copious amount of evidence consulted by the authors, the nature of the source material is unavoidably partial. Given that policy change is also a multifaceted and long-term process, this review can only provide possible pointers towards either substantive or procedural alterations in the various domains examined. Moreover, it is still too early to conclude authoritatively whether or not Covid-19 acted as a catalyst or harbinger of changes in local government practice. Measures and approaches that have arisen in response to the pandemic may persist for some time, but pre-existing patterns may yet reappear as social and economic life becomes less constrained. In this regard, the rapid increase in price inflation since early 2022 and its implications for public finances have drastically altered the context of local government operations, imposing severe constraints on what can be achieved whatever any local authority's ambitions might be.

Policy Punctuations, Path Clearing, Trend Reinforcement and Covid-19

The nature of policy trajectories

6There is a long-standing and deep-rooted tradition in public policy studies around the related concepts of 'policy trajectories' and 'path dependency', whereby the original framing of an issue of public concern and the initial intervention modes that stem from it have a persistent influence on the ways in which policy and practice evolve, adapt and even fossilise over time (see for example Baumgartner & Jones, 1993; eds, 2002; Hall, 1993; Hall & Taylor, 1996; Howlett, 1994; 2009; Kay, 2005; Mahoney, 2000; 2001; Pierson, 2000).These trajectories may be seen as “sequences of linked events which exhibit some regularity and direction” (Hogan et al., 2022, p. 2), becoming entrenched through both positive and negative feedback, which in turn produce ‘lock-in’ as changes to the status quo become progressively more costly. This does not mean that policy change is impossible but rather that certain conditions and circumstances must be in place for it to occur. Drawing on this theoretical tradition, Hogan et al. (2022) examine the extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic has provided the conditions for a ‘critical juncture’ to arise within such policy trajectories. They deploy the linked concepts of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ and ‘policy punctuations’, situations that may be engendered either by gradual shifts in ideas and principles, often in response to evolving circumstances, as a reaction to external shocks, or following the failure of existing policy in terms of unacceptable outcomes.

7Hogan et al. observe that not all policy punctuations necessarily represent critical junctures, which only occur when the possible ways of responding to crisis have narrowed to a slim range of choices. These are akin to what Jones et al. (2019, p. 9) describe as "massive" or "intensified" punctuations. Whatever the preferred terminology, reaching this point presages a specific form of policy change, whereby the nature of the decisions on how to proceed subsequently precludes the incorporation of other possibilities that existed beforehand. In most cases, however, policy punctuations tend to prompt incremental or adaptive rather than fundamental change.

8One innovation in these authors' presentation is to distinguish a fivefold typology of policy punctuations (Hogan et al., 2022, p. 5). First, ‘path initiation’, or the start of a policy trajectory, generally results from ‘focusing events’ which persuade governments to pay attention to or consider alternative measures to address particular issues. These often act to introduce new ways of thinking to a given policy domain, thus creating a new pathway.

9Second, ‘path (or 'trend') reinforcement’ tends to occur both automatically, through the very implementation of a set of policies, as well as deliberately, through its proponents' search for positive feedback on its benefits and effects. Evaluation recommendations for ‘more of the same’ (or at least just minor efficiency tweaks) are an example of such strengthening.

10Third, as already stated a critical juncture or punctuation (to confuse matters, also referred to as a ‘path deviation’) is a point where an existing approach loses legitimacy or rationale, and requires a choice to be made in terms of which set of new ideas or paradigm to adopt, and hence which direction to follow.

11Fourth, ‘path clearing’ refers to the removal of barriers so that measures that would previously have been difficult to agree upon may be introduced. This might involve a number of incremental steps or cumulative interventions over a prolonged period, or it might happen quickly in response to an immediate crisis. Where this involves actual change, the term 'policy acceleration' is sometimes used. Similarly, there is the possibility of ‘path blocking’, often the result of negotiation stalemate between the various interests involved in a particular policy arena, and which effectively contributes to trend reinforcement.

12Finally, ‘path termination’ is self-explanatory, heralding the end of a policy stream, occasionally occurring at a single point in time, but more likely as a gradual rundown or switch to an alternative.

13For the purposes of this article, attention has been focused principally on the second, third, and fourth of these 'punctuation' types. These have provided a framework of four conceptual descriptors which were used to assess the nature of actions pursued in each policy domain during the pandemic: namely, trend reinforcement (incorporating path blocking), path deviation, path clearing, and policy acceleration. The scope for the first type, path initiation, was also explored where elements of it appeared to be relevant. Before presenting this analysis, however, it is essential to outline the wider context for any potential change, firstly in terms of broad policy responses to Covid-19, and secondly regarding the structure and capacity of local government in the UK.

Covid-19 and policy path trajectories

14Boin et al. (2020, p. 119-120) have described Covid-19 as a “creeping crisis (with a) long shadow", with rapid government responses required as partial compensation for poor preparation. The hugely expanded allocation of monetary resources to mitigate the effects of restrictions on social and economic activity reversed an overall policy path hitherto aligned with austerity in public finances. However, whether this has created pressure for long-term and wide-ranging policy transformation remains unclear. Indeed, previous research on the relationship between external shocks and policy change has shown that the effects have been relatively weak, with any threats more likely to trigger risk-averse behaviour. This rests upon a ‘threat-rigidity’ hypothesis which holds that “during moments of emergency and uncertainty, humans tend to stick to what they know best” (Starke et al., 2013, p. 10).

15This does not mean that policy domains will remain the same following Covid-19. Much will depend on the point reached in political discourse and control as the disease continues to evolve. In the UK, continuing uncertainty in the face of persistent political and economic turmoil has invoked the prospect of a return to austerity, although its potentially counterproductive implications for national and municipal budgets have prompted calls for alternative pathways (Hoddinott et al., 2022). At the same time, distinct policy domains will be at different points along their existing ‘paths’, and each will contain a different balance of forces and set of interactions which underpin the scope for and extent of any change (Knill & Steinebach, 2022).

16Hogan et al. underline the importance of these contrasts, suggesting that the pandemic's impact on policy trajectories varied between different domains from the start. In public health, for example, the approach has been to pursue well-established protective and mitigatory actions, whereas direct financial support to businesses and employees has represented a novel departure for many countries. While presented as a temporary necessity, such intervention still provided a marker of what governments were prepared to do to shore up their economies (Moreira and Hick, 2021). In terms of procedural or operational aspects, Covid-19 appears to have acted more as a path-clearing stimulus, with previously long discussed and slow-moving developments accelerating rapidly. Prominent examples evident in both government circles and in society at large include advancing the deployment of digital technology by an estimated seven years (McKinsey, 2021), and the widespread switch to remote working by office-based workers (Partridge, 2022). Both developments have been particularly prominent in the public sector (Gómez et al., 2022; Moser-Plautz & Schmidthuber, 2023; ONS, 2023; Wilson & Tewdwr-Jones, 2023). Such 'path clearing' can also be seen in the removal of legal, procedural, and other blockages as a means of 'getting urgent things done'. While some of this may have involved innovative approaches, initial reviews concluded that in substantive terms, any support tended to maintain, rather than challenge, a policy framing defined by the dynamics of socio-economic inequality and privilege (along with their gendered effects), despite the pandemic exposing such disparities even more starkly (Bambra et al., 2021; Capano et al., 2020; Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, 2020; Smith & Judd, 2020).

17However, these assessments were made at a relatively early stage of the pandemic, and certainly before greater acceptance of widespread state intervention to support households and businesses had begun to filter through to public attitude surveys. The subsequent inflation-induced 'cost of living' crisis has only served to underline the dilemma between public spending restraint to prevent rapid growth in government debt and the need to bolster economic and social security, both in general and for households and individuals (Hoddinott et al., 2022). It seems likely that such considerations will continue to underpin political and policy developments alike in the coming years.

Recent Trends in UK Sub-National and Local Government

18Since the mid-1980s, the structure and operation of sub-national government in the UK has been subject to piecemeal yet significant change, fundamentally recasting the relationship between national and local governments. In particular, the devolution settlements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland transferred direct responsibility for local government to the respective administrations in those territories. In England, this falls instead to a specific Central Government department (currently the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities). At the same time, local government entities have been restructured in different ways, with the wholesale introduction of unitary councils in the devolved nations but partial and episodic moves in the same direction in England (Goodwin et al., 2005; Gore, 2018). This divergence has been reflected by a stronger emphasis on central-local collaboration and participatory and deliberative approaches to governance in Scotland and Wales, compared with more transactional and conflictual interactions in England (Hay & Martin, 2014; Pike et al., 2016; Verhoeven et al., 2022; Bynner et al., 2023).

19An associated aspect has been increased joint working between neighbouring authorities, principally exemplified by the establishment of Combined Authorities (CAs) in England’s city regions. These have a remit to coordinate policy in shared areas of interest, such as economic development, skills training, transport, housing and social care, specified in a ‘devolution deal’ agreed with Central Government (Beel et al., 2021). Similar cross-boundary collaboration has also occurred in Scotland and Wales, with bespoke 'growth deals' in place for the main urban centres and their hinterlands, in part to assist coordination where jurisdictional boundaries for different services overlap (Beel et al., 2021). Elsewhere, many councils now routinely coordinate their work with neighbours, for example by sharing ‘back office’ administrative functions (LGA, 2016).

20However, the biggest challenge for local government in the UK in recent years has been the 'austerity' approach of Coalition and Conservative governments since 2010, combining lower year-on-year grant levels, limitations on local revenue raising, and budgetary restrictions. According to Amin-Smith and Phillips (2019), local authority spending on services in England fell on average by just over a fifth in real terms between 2009-10 and 2017-18. The impact has varied widely between policy domains, with large cuts for discretionary services such as parks, leisure, and culture and relative protection afforded to certain mandatory provision like social care and children's services (Fahy et al., 2023). Similarly, there have been widespread geographical disparities in spending levels, with an average 32 per cent decrease incurred by councils serving the most deprived communities, compared to 17 per cent for those with the least deprivation (Hastings et al., 2017; Gray & Barford, 2018; Ogden et al., 2022).

21During this period, local authorities have become more reliant on local sources of revenue (mainly from property taxes and charges for services), but centrally imposed budget caps have kept a tight rein on spending this income (National Audit Office, 2017). The main way for councils to access additional resources has been by bidding competitively for new, generally ring-fenced and hence prescriptive, funding streams. Again, this means that any benefits have accrued in an uneven geographical manner (Syrett & North, 2008). In response, some councils have tried to diversify their income by investing in commercial ventures such as commercial property management, housing development and energy supply. However, in unstable economic times, this 'local authority entrepreneurialism' (Sturzaker & Nurse, 2021, p. 109) has achieved mixed results that range from high debt levels to enhanced financial reserves, although the latter have not been automatically available because of budgetary controls. While the relaxation of these restrictions early in the pandemic meant that some local authorities were able to provide extra support, this merely served to underline the variation in possible interventions between different areas.

22Even so, the ways in which these reserves might be used depended largely on existing staff capacity and expertise. According to de Gruchy and McManus (2020), sustained reductions in public health personnel has meant a narrowed focus on mandatory service commissioning at the expense of a wider coordinating role that could embed effective practices across a range of organisations. Despite moves to link together local health and care provision in England via Integrated Care Systems (ICS) (NAO, 2022b; Tiratelli & Naylor, 2023), these were still at the gestation stage when the pandemic arrived. As Insall (2020, p. 3) notes, "localisation of revenue sources has not equated to the localisation of authority over (how to use) them", leading to "centralisation by default".

23Nevertheless, local authorities have mounted a range of diverse responses to resource constraints, finding ways to meet community needs and maintain public services by means of alternative delivery mechanisms and revenue-raising tools (Shaw, 2012; Kim & Warner, 2016). This echoes responses to previous financial crises, which involved tactics of ‘resistance’ (ensuring services could continue by whatever means) and ‘smoothing’ (reducing or closing down the least used activities and delaying maintenance of assets) (Levine, 1978).To explain such moves, some commentators have utilised the concept of ‘institutional resilience’, which encapsulates the "capacity to absorb disturbance and reorganise into a functioning system" (Cutter et al., 2008, p. 599), a trait which has prompted John (2014) to dub local authorities 'the great survivor'.

24These techniques were expanded in response to austerity, particularly by remodelling partnership-based interventions away from target delivery and performance measurement towards leadership collaboration and operational coordination (Lowndes & McCaughie, 2013),in turn reflecting a continuing shift from rigid New Public Management (NPM) approaches to the more flexible tenets of New Public Governance (NPG) and its associated processes of 'institutional bricolage'(Crouch, 2005; Radnor et al., 2017; Torfing et al., 2020). Thus public, private and voluntary sector organisations have been brought together in varied forms to explore and agree how local areas can be supported and improved. However, this has not happened everywhere, with some councils adhering to enduring paternalistic attitudes and a reluctance to share power irrespective of the political party in control (Lowndes, 2005; Shaw, 2012).

25Whether characterised as 'pragmatic municipalism' (Kim & Warner, 2016; 2021) or ‘municipal pragmatism’ (Barnett et al., 2020) the emphasis has been very much on what can be achieved. A prominent example has been a community-facing ethos where service provision is designed and delivered in conjunction with local populations (Penny, 2017), an approach which has received formal legislative backing in both Scotland and Wales (McMillan et al., 2020; Farrell et al., 2020). One consequence has been easier access to health, welfare and other services, facilitated by the establishment of joint 'one-stop shops' and 'drop-in centres' in accessible locations where a wide range of different providers have a presence (see, for example, Arden et al., 2020).

26Another approach has been to bolster the local economy through public procurement practices. Known as 'community wealth building' (or the ‘Preston model’ after the city where it was pioneered), the underlying principle is to purchase goods and services from accredited suppliers in the local area, thus helping employers and workers alike (Guinan & O'Neill, 2020). Through this, local authorities and other public bodies have built stronger institutional and community networks in their areas, developing over time into self-sustaining sets of relationships that are not necessarily about public procurement, nor brokered by the local council. Similar developments in both the UK and other parts of Europe have occurred through strategic leadership collaboration between key local institutions (Davies et al., 2020).

27These positive strands should not mask the resource crisis facing local government in the UK as the pandemic took hold (Harris et al., 2019; Murphie, 2023). Thus, practices such as deferred maintenance, restrictions on opening hours, tighter eligibility criteria, volunteer operation, or even complete closure have resulted in many areas in loss of community facilities and deterioration in the quality of the built environment (Barnett et al., 2020). At the same time, it is important to recognise the "substantial variations between authorities (that have)...actively reshaped the relationship between central and local government in Britain, shrinking the capacity of the local state, increasing inequality between local governments and exacerbating territorial injustice" (Gray & Barford, 2018, p. 541). These impacts have been much deeper in certain local authority areas in England compared to their counterparts in Scotland and Wales, with clear implications for the nature of local responses to Covid-19. The following section examines how these played out in the five different policy domains that were the focus of our study.

Selected Municipal Responses to Covid-19 in the UK

Supporting and coordinating mutual aid

28An outstanding feature of the civic response to Covid-19 in the UK was the spontaneous emergence of around 4,000 mutual aid support groups (Rendall et al., 2022), mostly at a neighbourhood scale. Their success was founded on their ability to work quickly, flexibly, responsively and in a person-centred manner (Tiratelli & Kaye, 2020). They devised solutions to a range of problems faced by individuals and households during periods of full lockdown, partial restriction and beyond. Tasks included ensuring access to priority supermarket delivery slots; assembling and delivering food parcels to vulnerable people, resolving digital access for those shielding or needing to continue their education, establishing 'buddy' schemes for those living alone, helping schools to develop their home learning approach, and supporting community and family carers (Dayson et al., 2020; Heritage, 2020; WLGA, 2020a).

29The role of local government in fostering, supporting, and coordinating such activities was mixed. In many places it was positive, providing these groups with the space and resources that enabled them to flourish (Dayson & Damm, 2020; Tiratelli & Kaye, 2020). This facilitative approach relied on ‘gentle steering’ rather than ‘top-down’ commands, offered in-kind support to connect people and networks together, provided consistency in contact and coordination, and sought to build community leadership skills on as broad a basis as possible (Tiratelli & Kaye, 2020). For example, Oxford City Council tied its existing call centre operations into a wider community response system called Oxford Together (Willis & Fernandez, 2020), whilst a county-wide 24-hour helpline was put together for Kent (NLGN, 2020). Existing joint working in Barking and Dagenham in east London enabled the rapid creation of Community Solutions, an integrated ‘front door’ for primary support services (Compass, 2020; Lawson, 2020). Existing community organisations were also mobilised for the same purposes, for example via the 'Neighbourhood Networks' for elderly people in Leeds, covering the whole city and supported by Council and NHS grants (Dayson et al., 2020; 2022). Most initiatives of this kind have subsequently morphed into vital support mechanisms in the burgeoning 'cost of living' crisis (Ashton, 2022).

30Coordination and enabling of mutual aid also involved organisations at a smaller scale, including community and town councils (for example, Frome in Somerset) and existing residents’ associations (Harris, 2020). In some instances, this involved working in tandem to ensure that no-one in need fell through potential gaps, or to link people to the organisation most likely to be able to meet their particular needs. This occurred especially in Scotland, where moves towards community planning were already underway (Coutts et al., 2020), subsequently underpinning effective coordination of civil society responses in councils such as Perth and Kinross (SURF, 2020). Evolution of this facilitative approach was also evident in some English and Welsh councils, especially in localities where councils had already begun to operate in a more ‘community-facing’ way before the pandemic (Cretu et al., 2020; Local Trust/NLGN, 2020). Having the scope to capitalise on well-established relationships helped to knit together local authorities with health service, voluntary sector and civil society organisations into ‘complementary’ forms of governance (Dayson & Damm, 2020; Owens et al., 2020; Scottish Government, 2022). This may have been a factor in the high levels of satisfaction with local authority key workers during the pandemic (APSE, 2020). These shared experiences also engendered a commitment to closer joint operations in the future (Cretu et al., 2020; Munro & Burbidge, 2020; Machin, 2023).

31This further development of joint working and complementary governance represents continued progress along a relatively recently adopted path, but at a much more urgent pace: almost the perfect definition of a 'policy acceleration'. Three important features may be noted: firstly, this approach had been mandated in Scotland and strongly encouraged in Wales for some time; secondly, it is an area where central government focus on large-scale voluntary organisations in England (Burchell et al., 2023) perhaps left local authorities with more of a free hand than in other policy domains; and thirdly, the financial and staff resources required to make an impact are relatively insubstantial, especially for those already moving towards this way of operating.

32However, variations between local authorities should be acknowledged. For some, this way of working was relatively new; to the extent that it was something they were seeking to adopt, then the pandemic served as a 'path-clearing' mechanism. For those councils which had been more resistant, pursuing this line was certainly a case of 'path deviation', but one where the urgency of the situation called for rapid 'path clearing', including key lessons for local leaders around nurturing relationships with partners, agreeing clear shared objectives, ensuring central involvement of local politicians, fostering a conducive organisational culture, and workforce and leadership development to embed the ethos (Munro & Burbidge, 2020).

33In contrast, some councils found these inclusive intentions difficult to establish or sustain, often hampered by differences in organisational cultures, political outlook, policy priorities and performance regimes (Munro & Burbidge, 2020). Consequently, many encountered difficulties in engaging with such 'policy initiation'. At the same time, some councils sought to maintain hierarchical relationships, through either highly prescriptive regulatory requirements or micromanagement to align community groups’ activities with their own plans and strategies (Tiratelli & Kaye, 2020). Others ignored such community-based responses entirely, sometimes at the risk of duplicating efforts (Rendall et al., 2022), whilst there were cases where an initially receptive stance gradually fell back into more familiar regulatory behaviours such as strict control over information flows and rigid eligibility rules (Cox, 2020). Further research will be required to unravel the precise mix of 'policy barriers' that underpinned such 'trend reinforcement' for traditional NPM behaviours (Macmillan, 2021; Todd et al., 2022).

Maintaining the local economy

34Existing local economic development policy comprises an integration of people-focused, business-related, and place-based activities (North et al., 2007a; 2007b). In broad terms, actions aiming to assist residents include skills development, access to employment opportunities and support for self-employment; those supporting local businesses feature grants and subsidies, facilitation of access to local markets and suppliers, and advice on development and expansion; while place-based initiatives include the improvement of infrastructure and the built environment, the provision of land and premises, and the attraction of inward investment. Most of these require relatively long-term trajectories, so a key task during the pandemic was maintaining contact with current project participants with a view to resuming progress once lockdown restrictions were lifted. Another priority was to ensure the survival of those companies forced to interrupt trading due to pandemic restrictions, and to maintain employees' wages and salaries wherever possible (and in the process help them retain their posts). In terms of the resources required, this was far beyond what most local authorities could afford; the question then was what role they might play in determining and distributing financial support.

35In fact, centralised control meant that their role was relatively limited. Thus, around 80 per cent of state funding assistance to businesses and employees (in terms of loans and furlough payments) was administered directly by HM Treasury (Hutton & Keep, 2020). The stated rationale for this was to ensure efficiency and consistency, but the rather narrow eligibility criteria excluded enterprises with less conventional operating models, especially micro businesses and the self-employed (Ogden & Phillips, 2020). Many local authorities managed to fill these gaps through discretionary awards, either from reserves or from the £5 billion of emergency funding from the UK Government (Murphie, 2023). However, their principal role in supporting local economies involved acting as agents of central and devolved governments in distributing the flat rate grants made available to firms in the hospitality, tourism, entertainment and non-essential retail sectors. This was generally accomplished quickly and effectively using business support teams augmented through both staff redeployment and new recruitment, and via the introduction of expedited procedures. This process also helped to boost inter-departmental working (for example, in Pembrokeshire, west Wales: see WLGA, 2020b).

36The smoothing of procedures also helped when firms sought to comply with permitted practice when lockdown restrictions were eased. For example, Sheffield City Council reduced the average processing time for assessing requests for outdoor service areas in public spaces from seven weeks to seven days (LGA, 2020b). Other councils established alternative customer outlets for suppliers by means of local online market networks, digital directories and subscription portals, as in Neath Port Talbot, south Wales (WLGA, 2020c). Nevertheless, the scope and nature of support remained much the same as previously; any changes tended to involve expedited implementation rather than shifts in policy design, the introduction of alternative measures, or a revised underlying ethos. However, this is hardly surprising given the relative lack of attention in official policy discussions to alternative narratives or 'paths' regarding local economic development and the meagre scale of the resources available (HM Government, 2022; Crisp, 2022; Goodwin et al., 2022; Gore & Wells, 2022; Gray & Broadhurst, 2023; McCann, 2022; Ogden et al., 2022).

37Many local and sub-regional agencies did articulate ambitions in the form of future economic recovery and realignment strategies. Their major difficulty was the lack of clarity in terms of policy and practice on the part of the UK Government, at least before the publication of the 'Levelling Up' White Paper in February 2022. In this context, most of these refreshed local plans essentially represented veiled requests for funding as much as blueprints for action (for example, Liverpool City Council and Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, 2020; West Midlands Combined Authority, 2020). Nevertheless, many local partnerships did work to reset their longer-term strategies, for instance to build resilience within the local business base and to respond to wider structural shifts brought about by the pandemic. According to a survey of local authorities and local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) (Lichfields,2020), the formulation of these plans was based on strong local collaboration, especially in terms of intelligence gathering and sharing lessons from previous practice. Examples could be found in such disparate localities as Exeter, Glasgow and west London (Exeter City Council, 2020; Glasgow City Council, 2020; West London Alliance, 2020).

38Reflecting the more collaborative approach already noted in Scotland and Wales, both national governments conducted inclusive consultative exercises to set the context for local economic recovery planning (COSLA, 2020; SLAED, 2020). The aim was to enable local agencies to contribute ideas to nationally set priorities and targets, thus making it easier to align their own strategies. One example was the incorporation of flexible job creation in the public and voluntary sectors as a way of supplementing the traditional reliance on commercial businesses for employment (Francis-Devine et al., 2020). However, the devolved territories still rely on the UK Government for the bulk of their funding, with further devolved fiscal powers currently on hold (Eiser, 2020). Indeed, lack of public resources locally was seen as a major barrier by 70 per cent of Lichfields (2020) survey respondents, with current allocations insufficient to address either the long-term economic fall-out from Covid-19 or the need for more robust institutional frameworks to manage recovery (Hoole et al., 2023).

39Such constraints are a key policy barrier to the pursuit of any substantively different models of local economic development. While collaborative approaches certainly received a boost during the pandemic, this was more a matter of process than fundamental change in policy direction. Notwithstanding the pursuit of innovative economic development approaches by some Combined Authorities in north and central England (Goodwin et al., 2023), current funding arrangements mean that most local authorities and LEPs rely on specific projects that either form part of an agreed 'growth deal' or gain approval via competitive bidding (Ferreira et al., 2023). Indeed, recent reviews have focused entirely on how to improve these approaches at the margins rather than exploring anything innovative (House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, 2019; NAO, 2022a; Audit Scotland, 2023). The central control thus implied underlines the extent of 'trend reinforcement' in current policy deliberations, with little or no scope for local and regional actors to treat their economies in more holistic terms. Overall, therefore, efforts to support local economies during Covid-19 mainly involved 'procedural acceleration', featuring well-tried interventions accompanied by expedited decision-making, strengthened collaboration and widened networking. Despite much rhetoric traditional local economic development policy has been reinforced during the pandemic, rather than being recast along the alternative lines advocated by many commentators (for example, Crisp and Waite, 2020; Goodwin et al., 2022).

Addressing homelessness

40Since the 1980s UK housing policy has been predominantly framed around market-based provision via owner-occupation or private renting, with social housing gradually 'residualised' with insufficient supply for all those in need. Under this approach, homelessness has been treated as a mixture of individual failure and unfortunate circumstance, the latter hemmed in by legal limitations that determine who may legitimately receive assistance from local authorities (Harding, 2020). Local housing welfare options for people experiencing homelessness are patchy and increasingly stretched beyond capacity. Those deemed not to be in priority need of statutory housing relief, including where individuals are found to be ‘intentionally’ homeless, largely rely on accessing poorer quality Private Rented Sector (PRS) accommodation, with limited available night shelter provision. Where priority for housing is granted due to vulnerability characteristics such as family status, scarce temporary accommodation is allocated, including low grade B&B’s and hotels, with resettlement options constrained by the lack of social housing.

41There had been tentative moves in the UK towards adoption of a 'Housing First' approach before the pandemic, mixing preventative measures such as debt advice to tenants and negotiation with landlords on the one hand, with secure access to reserved dwellings and appropriate support to sustain occupation on the other. However, this has only occurred on a pilot basis in a small number of places, with limited resources that may not match Housing First's intensive, flexible and non-conditional principles (Tsemberis, 2012). This has led to accusations about a ‘poverty of ambition’ in existing provisions for homelessness (Parcell et al., 2020). In response, in Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales) a commitment to Rapid Rehousing Approaches has evolved (Homeless Network Scotland, 2021), whereas in England unsupported and often shared PRS housing has remained a large part of the solution.

42While the trajectory of homelessness policy across the UK has been towards a preference for self-contained housing over segregated and congregate accommodation (Watts and Blenkinsopp, 2022), the UK's response to Covid-19 framed the problem firmly in terms of risks to public health. This perspective drove an innovative approach comprising the twin strands of prevention and protection. The first involved a temporary UK-wide restriction on 'no fault' (or Section 21) evictions by private landlords where there was no justification such as rent default or property damage. The second was a scheme to transfer rough sleepers to self-contained accommodation, known in England as 'Everyone In' and in Scotland as 'Everyone Home' (MHCLG, 2020a). While this was led and funded by central government, local authorities were instrumental in making it a success through large-scale street outreach efforts, rapid agreements with hotel operators, tourist short-let providers and other owners of unoccupied dwellings, and in liaison with health bodies and related services (LGA, 2020b). Local responses varied according to the availability of suitable spaces, the presence of existing partnerships and agencies, and other local governance issues (Fitzpatrick et al., 2020; Geraghty, 2020). In Scotland, councils were also required to place equal emphasis on finding suitable move-on accommodation, thus bringing more urgency to a task already within their brief under their previously slow-moving Rapid Rehousing Transition Plans.

43In general, local authorities and their partners espoused the new approach smoothly and efficiently. Despite some initial challenges (Groundswell, 2020), the health benefits of self-contained provision became evident in reduced infection rates, hospital admissions and deaths among rough sleepers, as well as the opportunity for independence that individual accommodation provided. That change in approach also highlighted the benefits of greater integration between health and housing services, with complex support needs and multiple disadvantages placed in sharper focus. Building on trends already under way in some places, the pandemic also garnered increased and collaborative support to enable resettlement into permanent homes. A good example was the Welsh Government's Leasing Scheme, whereby local authorities refurbished otherwise vacant private rented properties to act as a 'halfway house' between loss of accommodation or being in temporary lodgings and a more permanent home (Gibb and Smith, 2022). This type of cooperation also enabled some households to move from temporary rooms with communal facilities to housing associations' empty properties (NHF, 2020).

44In places such as Sefton (Merseyside) and Southwark (London) the recent emphasis has been more on prevention, with councils capitalising on relationships with private and social landlords built up during the pandemic to provide an intermediary role in resolving disputes with tenants, including access to debt advice, enhanced tenancy management and access to mental health support (Crisis, 2023; Southwark Council Housing Residents' Working Party, 2022). Other schemes involved modular units, small-scale 'pods' and converted office blocks, although such ‘innovations’ have received criticism concerning their relatively low standards. For example, the Children’s Commissioner for England warned against the cramped conditions faced by growing numbers of homeless families placed in office blocks and shipping containers (Children’s Commissioner, 2019).

45However, during later periods of lockdown government support for housing rough sleepers was much less generous, and local authorities faced significant uncertainty over whether there would be sufficient funding to house everyone (Heath & Barker, 2021). Subsequently, in late 2020, over £350 million was allocated to local government and Registered Providers through the Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme. Authorities such as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Liverpool City Region, and West Midlands Combined Authority used that funding to continue Housing First Pilots as well as 'move-on' accommodation, combining resources from health and housing to sustain tenancies. However, Housing First programmes outside these regions are scarce and an All Party Parliamentary Group was set up to coordinate calls for a more comprehensive roll out (Wilson & Loft, 2021).

46The sense that these responses were too patchy and inadequate in scale to deal with the extent of the homelessness problem has since been amplified by the impact of the ‘cost of living’ crisis (Fitzpatrick et al., 2023). The rapid growth in the number of households unable to afford increases in rent, mortgage repayments and energy bills has resulted in a surge in homelessness and a burgeoning crisis in providing temporary accommodation, especially in the big cities (Hackett & Farrelly, 2022). With Local Housing Allowance frozen at 2013 levels, the shortfall between housing benefit and PRS rents has grown to unmanageable levels across the country (Neibig, 2023). This has placed a huge burden on already stretched local authorities' budgets, with rapidly escalating temporary accommodation costs helping to push them into financial crisis (Jessel, 2023). Despite clamour for central government to take steps to ameliorate the situation, little appears to be on the immediate horizon. Even the repeal of Section 21 'no fault' evictions included in the current Renters' Reform Bill has stalled due to an unwillingness to schedule its second reading, despite a relative lack of competition for parliamentary time (Bychawski, 2023).

47Given the slow progress beforehand, it is clear that theCovid-19 crisis prompted some 'path-clearing' in England and 'policy acceleration' in Scotland and Wales in the way in which homelessness was tackled. One important aspect was the way in which urgent need galvanised heightened cooperation between local housing, health and other agencies, mirroring trends in other domains. However, central government commitment remains piecemeal, particularly in England. Undoubtedly there are islands of commendable - and probably effective - practice, but their geographical patchiness means that they are insufficient to address the current high levels of homelessness and rough sleeping. In effect this is just one element of a much wider housing crisis for which the current government seems to have few answers, even allowing for the financial pressures it faces. Certainly a lack of policy alternatives is not the issue. The 'policy blockage' appears to rest on interlinked factors such as the strength of the property lobby, the reluctance to reassign short-term expenditure (on temporary accommodation) to longer-term social provision, the 2013 cap on the Local Housing Allowance, and deeper ideologies about the 'undeserving poor'. Indeed, failure to address these barriers has resulted in 'trend reinforcement' around forms of homelessness provision before the pandemic, and the reversal of gains made during that time.

Managing parks and other public spaces

48In the UK, the provision of open space for public leisure and recreation has tended to be either taken for granted or sadly neglected, epitomised by a situation in which local authorities have management responsibilities without either a legal duty or the ability to raise additional resources to maintain the quality of existing facilities or to develop new ones (House of Commons, 2017).In other words, such provision is discretionary and as such has been an easy target for funding reductions and deferred maintenance during the years of austerity (Fahy et al., 2023). As part of this, some councils have transferred the management of such green spaces to local voluntary bodies such as 'Friends of' groups. Others have sought to extract financial returns from the use of such spaces for music and other festivals (Smith, 2019;2021). While concern has been expressed at the perceived decline of the nation's parks along with proposals on how to tackle it (Heritage Lottery Fund, 2016; House of Commons, 2017), no alternative approaches appear to have gained any traction.

49Indeed, any funding for improvement or new provision has tended to come from sources other than central government, such as the National Lottery, or through agreements with housing and property developers in connection with specific developments. Given their nature, such initiatives have not been universal and have often been used to plug gaps in municipal funding (House of Commons, 2017: 33). Alternative narratives for the future shape of open space provision do exist, including the notion of ‘just sustainabilities’ (Agyeman, 2013) that highlights more equitable access to public goods and closer linkage with health service interventions such as preventative measures or therapeutic treatments (Bragg & Leck, 2017).There is burgeoning evidence on the positive effects of green spaces on physical, mental and social well-being (at least for those who can access them), and this has been translated into 'good practice' guidance to promote their use through measures such as 'green social prescribing' (Pritchard et al., 2019; Wendelboe-Nelson et al., 2019; Public Health England, 2020; NHS England, 2018; 2020). However, there has been little response in the land use planning, recreation, and health policy arenas to ensure the provision and maintenance necessary to sustain such goals (Whitten, 2021).

50During Covid-19 lockdown, local government action around parks and public spaces centred on two connected challenges: managing an unexpected upsurge in use, and doing so within the confines of already severely stretched resources. While these challenges were not exactly new, they were suddenly exacerbated because people who would otherwise use indoor spaces or rural settings for exercise were channelled into local public spaces, many of them for the first time. This pressure was heightened by the instruction for people to ‘stay local’ alongside active restrictions on access to the countryside (National Parks in particular) for recreational purposes. At the same time, many activities that would normally be central to the use of green spaces were closed or curtailed, including cafés, toilets, playgrounds, group activities and community events.

51While many people gained unexpected benefits from exploring local green spaces and running, walking or cycling more, there was no acknowledgement by central government of the additional costs involved, estimated at an average of £33,000 for each local authority over the first three months (Keep Britain Tidy, 2020). This included the rapid installation of signage and other measures to help manage movement, ensure social distancing, and encourage people to respect the environment and take litter home (Dobson et al., 2021). Some positive savings were made, with reduced mowing by many councils becoming an integral part of their efforts to encourage biodiversity. Indeed, some used Covid-19 as an opportunity to review green space management practices, in the process linking reduced mowing with the creation of wildflower meadows. Such practices were continued after lockdown, or even extended to other spare patches of land such as roadside verges, providing an immediate visual impact if nothing else. There were also examples of strengthened collaboration between local authorities and voluntary organisations, especially around the formulation of risk assessments and safe working practices for volunteers during the later phases of lockdown (Eadson et al., 2022). While some of these changes were already afoot, the pandemic provided an opportunity to accelerate plans, building on greater public awareness of the natural world in their immediate vicinity.

52The heavy usage of public spaces during the pandemic prompted several non-governmental organisations to produce research reports advocating extensive capital investment in green infrastructure, especially in the most disadvantaged areas, with the benefits framed mostly in relation to improved health and well-being (Groundwork, 2020; Localis, 2020; National Trust, 2020; Pardoe, 2020; Ramblers, 2020). Greater insight into how the use of funds could be maximised whilst at the same time adapting provision to local needs and circumstances has also emerged (Eadson et al., 2022). Missing from these analyses are, firstly, the likely source of the extra finance being called for; and, secondly, how this activity might fit into the prevailing principles of policy for the development of the built environment (or 'planning', in short).

53In fact, already under way but seemingly deepened by the pandemic has been a divergence in approach between Scotland and Wales on the one hand, and England on the other. In the devolved nations, a central part of their emphasis on ‘sustainable place-making’ is the need to have ‘green space on your doorstep’, with the aim that such facilities can be easily reached via walking or cycling (Scottish Government, 2020; Welsh Government, 2020). In contrast, in England, the Planning White Paper published in August 2020 (MHCLG, 2020b) focused more on prescriptive house-building targets and the removal of regulations around protected land in the Green Belt and rural areas, with little consideration of how any open space might be incorporated into the developments that ensue. After provoking huge political conflict, most of the proposals have since been dropped, but this has left an even bigger vacuum given the absence of any national built environment strategy, and how open space provision can contribute to it. The introduction of the Levelling Up Parks Fund in August 2022 illustrates that central government is aware of the issues, but with a budget of £9 million to be spread between the 85 local authorities most in need, this will not provide a solution across the whole country (DLUHC, 2022).

54In summary, during Covid-19 the long-running financial constraints and the associated delegation of managerial responsibility limited local government’s capacity to find new solutions that might have enabled more facilities to stay open or for community activities to take place outdoors. While practical attention focused on managing demand safely, in the process often accelerating collaborative approaches with voluntary and community organisations, most policy attention was directed more towards time-consuming attempts to persuade central government to give greater support to public space maintenance and improvement. Links to other policy domains such as health and sustainability did occur, but largely on a scattered, piecemeal basis. Acknowledgement of the benefits of accessing open space during lockdown and after may have been loud and unequivocal, but this has yet to translate into an effective alternative approach that ensures 'greenspace networks' that are available to all. At least in Scotland and Wales, the inclusion of such ideas in place-making policy for all areas represents an element of 'path-clearing' that can form the basis for further innovation. In England, the lack of clarity over current planning policy, the paucity of 'levelling up' funding and the continued reliance on spin-offs from large regeneration schemes in cities such as Manchester and Brighton underline the extent to which 'trend reinforcement' is occurring, with the consequence that provision and management of such spaces remain 'locked in' to existing narratives and practices and the problems they create.

Promotion of active travel

55For many years, transport policy has been framed by a perspective rooted in engineering expertise, a belief in the primacy of private motorised modes and residual support for public services, or what Mattioli et al. (2020, 1) refer to as the 'dominant automobility regime'. While many facets of this approach persist, at the local scale growing concern over traffic congestion, air pollution and associated health repercussions has added the promotion of active travel modes like walking and cycling to the mix. This has resulted in both central and devolved governments in the UK formulating ‘active travel’ strategies and allocating successive dedicated funding streams for local government to implement measures to help increase its modal share (Department for Transport, 2020a; 2023a; Transport Scotland, 2014). Although the modest amounts of funding provided indicate that it tends to have a relatively low priority compared to other modes, active travel is now undoubtedly part of the transport policy agenda and is hence engaged in the continuing struggle for prominence and resources within this domain.

56During the lockdown phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, all parts of the UK had clear government directions for people to avoid public transport and wherever possible to use more active modes. To facilitate this, councils were quickly authorised and given funding to install temporary active travel measures in suitable locations, or to bring forward permanent schemes that had already been agreed (Department for Transport, 2020b; Sustrans, 2020; Waters, 2020). As a result, many local authorities rapidly arranged the selective reallocation of road space in built-up areas to allow widened pavements for the safe movement of pedestrians and 'pop-up' cycle lanes segregated from motorised road users (Dunning & Nurse, 2020). Other developments included secure cycle parking facilities, electric bike hire schemes, and flexible access for different road users at different times of the day. In some places behavioural programmes sought to assist those thinking of switching to active travel, including bicycle purchase or repair vouchers, mobile tracking apps, online cycle training videos, and other incentives (Zagros, 2020). The rapid introduction of some of the physical measures, often without prior consultation, provoked vociferous opposition in some quarters, leading to some being quickly removed (Ames, 2020; Walsh, 2020). Many were used only sporadically, partly because of their location on commuting routes at a time of widespread working from home, partly because they only served restricted areas, and partly because of their isolation from wider cycle route networks (Parkes et al., 2021).

57Although more aimed at improving safety and environmental conditions in residential streets, the designation of low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) was also seen as a contribution to active travel encouragement. Before Covid-19, these had already been successfully introduced by some councils, especially in parts of London such as Enfield, Hackney and Waltham Forest (Abellan, 2023; Aldred et al., 2021; Goodman et al., 2020). They appear to have worked well where there had been widespread public consultation and the changes were part of a package of public realm improvements (Rawlinson and Black, 2020). However, during the pandemic their introduction was rushed by some local authorities, especially those with little prior experience of implementation. In many cases, they proceeded under pressure from central government for a rapid response and speedy disbursement of funds, exacerbated by limited consultation and inadequate consideration of wider consequences such as emergency service access and displaced traffic causing congestion elsewhere (Cuffe, 2020; Abellan, 2023). Ensuing opposition then led either to significant design changes or, in some cases, complete scrapping. In fact, research has shown that a majority of residents tends to be in favour of such restrictions (Bosetti et al., 2022), but the vociferous complaints of a minority have begun to dominate the news agenda (Wall, 2020; Burford, 2021; Lunetto et al., 2023). Nevertheless, many cities are continuing to pursue these initiatives in their quest for healthier and more attractive environments, despite the announcement of a LTN review by the current Prime Minister in July 2023 (Russell & Stenning, 2020; Slow, 2023).

58Similarly, some cycling facilities were more successful and have since been made permanent; indeed, further tranches of funding switched focus away from the Covid-related 'pop-up' schemes (Department for Transport, 2020c). In England, this approach dovetailed with the ambitious and long-term ‘Gear Change’ vision for increased cycling and walking announced in July 2020, involving a new coordinating body (Active Travel England), intensive investment in 12 non-London council areas, and integration with place-making and health improvement policies (Department for Transport, 2020b). More recently, Active Travel England has been made a statutory consultee on major developments (Active Travel England, 2023). Conversely, almost simultaneously, the active travel budget suffered a more than 50 per cent cut as part of central government efforts to curb public spending (Walker, 2023; Department for Transport, 2023b).

59In contrast, the approach in Scotland and Wales has been more consistent, particularly in aiming at greater integration with other policy areas. In the former, active travel funding in response to Covid-19 was delivered through the ‘Spaces for People’ scheme, with a focus on temporary measures. This has now pivoted into a pre-existing scheme –the ‘Places for Everyone’ programme –which also includes the aforementioned proposals for 'sustainable places' and improved access to green space (Transport Scotland, 2020a; Transport for Scotland, 2020b). In Wales, the updated and radical national transport delivery plan (Welsh Government, 2023) and the accompanying Roads Review report (Roads Review Panel, 2023) propose the scrapping of major road building schemes, the introduction of a 20 mph speed limit on most urban roads, and the development of active travel networks as a key element of the 'better places' agenda.

60These contrasting experiences between the three main UK countries underline the historic imbalances in provision, where government funding for active travel has been distributed on a competitive bidding rather than on a universal basis (Nurse & Dunning, 2020). Thus, the quality of local government interventions for active travel deployed during the pandemic was inevitably linked to them having plans and proposals already in place on the one hand, and to the existence of local partnerships and effective relationships on the other (Abellan, 2023; Parkes et al., 2021). In this sense, for those that were already a good way along this path, Covid-19 acted as a 'policy accelerator' in this sphere. However, the caveat is that merely having such local plans is not sufficient for this to take effect; previous, more sedate experience or capability in the field –measures that effectively constituted ‘path clearing’- was also essential to ensure an appropriate level of preparedness for the introduction of what were elsewhere perceived as radical changes.

61It also underlines the dangers of a rushed approach to infrastructure adjustments, especially where the goal is to foster long-term shifts in travel behaviour. Thus, those councils with a strong track record of installing active travel infrastructure and providing support for those wishing to make a change had multiple advantages in terms of a ready-made consultative network, a series of already established, well-designed schemes, and an ability to demonstrate that any negative impacts would be much lower than predicted (Rawlinson & Black, 2020). In contrast, more inexperienced local authorities encountered difficulty in applying a traditional ‘predict and provide’ approach to new measures, along the lines of ‘install it and it will be used’. This then ran into a 'policy blockage' in the form of a lack of consensus over the merits of particular proposals. In other words, the 'policy acceleration' was not universal; instead, its incidence was contingent on both local context and past actions, only occurring where these were in its favour. Moreover, the variations in the messaging and resourcing between England, Scotland and Wales underlines not only the effect of political instability on the progress of relatively new policy initiatives, but also the persistence of traditional perspectives in a wide-ranging domain such as transport policy.

Conclusion

62This article set out to assess the extent to which the Covid-19 pandemic acted to prompt alteration or persistence with regard to the interventions and approaches adopted at the local scale in the UK in different policy domains. A fourfold typology of policy punctuations was applied to an extensive body of documentary and research evidence across these domains. The analysis suggests that all four types have been in play both during and after lockdown periods. Thus, 'path deviation' (or possibly 'initiation' for some) affected those local authorities exposed for the first time to involvement both in support networks for mutual aid and in joint provision of secure accommodation for rough sleepers and other homeless individuals. For those in the initial stages of such activity, the urgency of the situation necessitated considerable ‘path clearing’, perhaps much earlier than would have occurred otherwise. Similarly, the integral role of parks and open space in the built environment strategies of Scotland and Wales may have already been in the pipeline, but became inevitable once the pandemic underlined the value of such provision and, if successful, these plans should act as a 'path clearing' mechanism for a different local approach to green space.

63‘Policy acceleration’ could be detected in support for mutual aid, addressing homelessness and promotion of active travel. Not surprisingly, this occurred in those local authority areas where some 'path clearing' had already occurred. In these places, new ideas and approaches had already been formulated, were already under way or in train, and existing institutional and community relationships provided a base on which to build. However, lack of central government commitment and reductions in funding availability in response to the current economic crisis raise strong concerns about the longevity of the changes in the latter two domains. Finally, in all five domains, there were cases of 'trend reinforcement' closely aligned with 'policy blockages'. In relation to support for mutual aid, this was usually specific to those local authorities that remained resistant to collaborative ways of working. In the other domains it was related more to a lack of progress at central government level, especially in England, either with respect to taking forward proposals already in the pipeline (addressing homelessness), the aforementioned funding restrictions (active travel), or the reluctance to espouse new ideas and approaches (parks and open space, local economic development). Indeed, in these last two domains it appears that strongly entrenched custom and practice and a lack of alternative approaches at a sufficiently persuasive stage of development mean that, despite 'procedural acceleration' in some instances, the tendency in terms of policy content has been for not just 'trend reinforcement' but complete 'lock-in' (Pierson, 2000).

64In summary, therefore, the analysis illustrates how at the local scale in the UK, the impact of Covid-19 has varied greatly by both policy domain and geography often in intersecting ways (Arrieta, 2022). Thus, none of the policy punctuation mechanisms have operated universally; rather, their emergence has been contingent on local conditions, circumstances, and policy histories, as well as the responses of local actors. Indeed, variations in organisation and functioning, in relationships with both the centre and local communities, and in resources and capacity appear to have affected how local governments across the world were able to respond (Kuhlmann & Franzke, 2021; Parrado and Galli, 2021; McDonald et al., 2020). Despite these constraints, in most places they represented 'an essential partner in the organisation and coordination of responses... to the needs of vulnerable citizens' (Nunes Silva, 2022, p. 9). As such, these experiences revealed a latent strength in connecting people, communities, organisations and businesses in ways that helped those in need and more generally brought improvements to local areas (Cretu et al., 2020; Grey et al., 2022; McKinlay and Matheson, 2023). Perhaps it is this 'procedural acceleration' towards more collaborative, deliberative operating models that will be the chief local governance legacy of Covid-19, rather than any substantive changes in policy content. After all, it is apparent that policy change is a slow process and needs a conscious accumulation of experience and trust in association with those affected to take hold. This would mirror the call for 'the wholesale adoption of relationalism' (Ball, 2023, p. 376) in local policy circles. In the face of another crisis around the cost of living and the critical state of local government finances (Local Democracy Research Centre, 2023), concerted collaboration is probably the only recipe available for weathering the storm.

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References

Electronic reference

Tony Gore, Emma Bimpson, Julian Dobson and Stephen Parkes, Path Clearing, Policy Acceleration or Trend Reinforcement: Potential Implications of Selected Local Government Responses to Covid-19 in the UKInternational Review of Public Policy [Online], 5:3 | 2023, Online since 01 December 2023, connection on 20 May 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/irpp/3872; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/irpp.3872

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About the authors

Tony Gore

Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), Sheffield Hallam University, UK
t.gore@shu.ac.uk
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-0997-7198

Emma Bimpson

Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), Sheffield Hallam University, UK
e.bimpson@shu.ac.uk

Julian Dobson

Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), Sheffield Hallam University, UK
julian.dobson@shu.ac.uk
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6164-2707

Stephen Parkes

s.parkes@shu.ac.uk
Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), Sheffield Hallam University, UK
https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4379-2058

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