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INTRODUCTION: Local and Regional Government Roles in Response to COVID-19

Tony Gore and Glendal Wright

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1For this special issue of the International Review of Public Policy we have assembled a collection of papers originally presented to the four sessions held at the Third IPPA International Workshop on Public Policy (IWPP3) hosted by the University of Budapest on 28th and 29th June 2021. Organised around the theme ‘Local Government Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Mitigation, Adaptation and Support’, the aims of the workshop were as follows:

To examine how sub-national government bodies managed to continue delivering public services while at the same time mobilising human and financial resources to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic upon residents, businesses and other organisations within their jurisdictions; and

To explore the extent to which the practices that emerged were based on new urban governance policy paradigms and the prospects for such approaches to persist once the pandemic had abated.

2The key themes underpinning the framing of the workshop provide a helpful device for summarising the contribution of the five articles comprising this special issue. The first of these themes concerned the extent to which local and regional governments were afforded input into policy- and decision-making processes in mounting responses to the pandemic across the domains for which they have responsibility. The findings that emerge on this are rather mixed. Thus, as Filipetti and Tuzi recount, in Italy the relative legislative and fiscal autonomy built into regional devolution provided scope for an 'intense activism' in terms of resource mobilisation on the one hand, and the speedy introduction of family and business support measures that were complementary or additional to those overseen by the national government on the other. Also in Italy, Maino and di Tommaso demonstrate how one city authority (Parma) with its partners was able to adapt its recently introduced collaborative co-management model to ensure that support and assistance to the frail elderly and the economically deprived were available from the most appropriate source. Gore et al. also found that some councils in the UK similarly built rapidly on such embryonic networks, although this was by no means universal; at the same time in certain policy domains the tight grip of central government over both policy measures and resources meant that any complementary support offered at the local scale tended to be rather ad hoc and variable. In the same country Kippin and Morphet illustrate how the very specific remit of the relatively new city region bodies (Combined Authorities) meant that their involvement was principally one of 'place-based leadership', comprising coordination and mediation between the various stakeholders on the one hand, and setting the agenda for social and economic recovery on the other.

3Our second framing theme concerned the ways in which local and regional administrations adapted their provision of services, in terms of both design of measures and modes of delivery, and the extent to which they possessed the capacity to do so. Again, the evidence indicates that any innovations were well within the scope of the body concerned, extending approaches already adopted or moving more strongly into activities in which they had already begun to dabble. Thus, in the UK many of the aforementioned areas where institutional networking was becoming the norm beforehand saw the establishment of joint telephone/email helplines, service provision hubs and cross-referral mechanisms. As Gore et al. also reveal, several councils quickly updated application processes through use of information technology, accelerating decision-making in the process. In Parma Maino and di Tommaso point to a similar pooling of welfare demands, as well as the sharing of costs between network members, alongside community outreach efforts and responsive technological solutions aimed at widening access and ensuring the correct support package delivered by the most relevant provider. However, new approaches were thinner on the ground among bodies operating at a wider regional scale, though not entirely absent. Thus, according to Filipetti and Tuzi some regional authorities in Italy did broaden eligibility criteria for financial support to otherwise excluded businesses (especially small and medium-sized enterprises), mainly in the form of special credit instruments or debt deferral, as well as adapting the support available in line with the changing context of the pandemic and the severity of the restrictions in place to combat the spread of the virus. As for the city region level in the UK, the major practical contribution here quoted by Kippin and Morphet was the joint participation of several local authorities in Liverpool City Region in a scaled-up Covid testing regime that was brokered by the Combined Authority and was at the forefront of the belated introduction of 'test and trace' centres across the whole country.

4A third theme underpinning the workshop was the potential fiscal crisis for municipal councils resulting from the immediate reduction in tax and other revenues due to the shutdown of economic activity during periods of lockdown, along with further potential losses associated with more permanent shifts in social and economic behaviour that were predicted to become more entrenched after the pandemic. The article by Zhu and Akella places this at the front and centre of its analysis, examining commercial property trends in three world cities (Hong Kong, London and New York). The increasing propensity for many office employees to work mainly at home has prompted businesses not only to reduce the space they require (thus reducing overall demand), but also to restructure the nature of their preferred premises. The latter relates to both internal configurations, with fewer desks and more meeting venues, and the external environment, with accommodation integrated with or close to key amenities such as recreational facilities and other services. This involves a 'flight to quality' in which premises that do not offer these benefits become increasingly redundant. While these superior 'trophy towers' may generate higher tax levels individually, in aggregate they are unlikely to help staunch the losses to the public purse from the overall decline in occupancy rates. The authors suggest that new urban development policies will be needed in response to this challenge, coupling promotion of a higher proportion of 'Class A' offices on the one hand with the repurposing of empty properties for leisure, tourism or even residential use on the other, and hence helping to rebuild the tax base. In contrast, the other articles make only passing reference to budgetary pressures and restrictions, many of which actually pre-date the pandemic. Thus, Maino and di Tommaso underline how Parma's co-management approach to welfare has helped to reduce costs through greater operational efficiency, as well as technological advances, a gain that has been accelerated as a result of the pandemic response. Conversely, regarding the UK Gore et al. speculate that the deepening financial woes of the local authority sector is likely to obstruct further development of the positive approaches and relationships that many councils were able to foster during lockdown and after. However, neither of the articles explore the exact ways in which the combination of emergency pandemic expenditure and income loss may have aggravated the current problems.

5Contributors explored the implications and significance of changes in policy formation and implementation on the one hand, and in the governance roles of different institutions on the other. Two of the articles in this special issue seek to do so by application of the same conceptual framework focused on the notion of 'policy trajectories' and the possibility that 'punctuations' caused by an emergency or other interruption could alter their (the trajectories’) course. In fact, Maino and di Tommaso found that in Parma the pandemic served both to reinforce the validity of the newly adopted co-management approach to local welfare, and to accelerate its use across all relevant agencies operating in the city. For more specific innovative interventions (such as the 'emergency platform' linking actors involved in supporting those facing economic hardship) the pandemic provided more of a 'path-clearing' catalyst. In broader terms, Gore et al. reveal that practices amongst local authorities in the UK show evidence of four of the five 'policy punctuations' coming into play during the pandemic, namely 'policy initiation', 'path clearing', 'policy acceleration' and 'trend reinforcement'. However, these incidences were by no means universal, only affecting certain domains in particular places; nor were new initiatives necessarily permanent, being reliant on central rather than local resources (accommodating homeless rough sleepers being a case in point). That said, it does seem that the 'procedural accelerations' noted in some policy sectors are becoming more entrenched. At the regional scale, Filipetti and Tuzi conclude that the strong degree of autonomy and fiscal capability allowed responses in Italy to be tailored to specific challenges facing different parts of the country, and this in turn was built on political legitimacy rooted in the constitutional status and democratic basis of these institutions. In contrast, being reliant on secondary legislation and funding allocations from central government Combined Authorities are inherently unstable entities, according to Kippin and Morphet, yet during the pandemic they were able to exploit a perceived 'competency gap' to position themselves as the key organisation in forging their area's social and economic future.

6To conclude, this relatively small collection of articles with such a restricted focus in terms of both geography and policy domain was never intended to provide a comprehensive picture or the final word on local and regional responses to COVID-19. Instead, it offers insights into what happened in some places and sectors, involving bodies at differing levels of sub-national governance. The findings both echo and complement other assessments of local government roles in addressing the impacts and mitigating the effects of COVID-19 (for example, Arrieta, 2022; Nunes Silva, ed., 2022). The articles reveal a varied and complex picture across different geographical scales, within and between different policy domains, and between different nation states. Given the variegated nature of institutional structures in terms of jurisdictional powers, financial resources and political cultures, this may not be too much of a surprise. However, these institutional rigidities soften and may open up for public bodies to explore in innovative and effective ways, especially at times of all-encompassing emergency such as the pandemic. That said, it is also evident that successful navigation of such opportunities has to be built on prior preparatory work. The importance of this in facilitating collaborative and coordinated ways of working between local municipalities and their partners is underlined in the examples cited in Italy and the UK. While it may be commonly accepted among experts that network governance rests on a long-term process of development (Keast, 2016), this is an axiom that is always worth reiterating.

7We hope that the evidence and insights contained in this collection will give other researchers both inspiration and practical pointers into some of the key questions to be explored and the concepts and methods through which they might do so. At the same time, it emphasises the extent to which there remain gaps in our knowledge about the detailed responses to the pandemic on the ground, and the extent to which these have helped to mould and influence continuing policy and practice in the post-pandemic period.

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Bibliography

Arrieta, T. (2022). An Assessment of the Resilience of Local Government in England: Was it Well-Equipped to Overcome the Covid-19 Pandemic? The Political Quarterly, 93(3), 408-415.

Keast, R. (2016). Network Governance. In C.Ansell and J.Torfing (Eds.), Handbook on Theories of Governance. (pp.442-453). Edward Elgar

Nunes Silva, C. (Ed., 2022). Local Government and the Covid-19 Pandemic. Springer.

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References

Electronic reference

Tony Gore and Glendal Wright, “INTRODUCTION: Local and Regional Government Roles in Response to COVID-19International Review of Public Policy [Online], 5:3 | 2023, Online since 30 December 2023, connection on 24 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/irpp/4096; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/11p8c

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About the authors

Tony Gore

Sheffield Hallam University, UK

By this author

Glendal Wright

Bankworld Inc., USA

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Copyright

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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