Leicester Builds Back Better Questions

Over the past eighteen months, many of us have had conversations about what it means to Build Back Better following the Covid-19 pandemic. My recollection of the early stages of the lockdown is of a surge in willingness to talk about social topics that have been off the agenda for some time, particularly in entertainment-driven news media, party politics, as well as civic and social discussion. Fuelled by the increased accessibility of things like podcasts, vlogs and social media, I experienced and took part in a wave of Zoom and Teams conversations, many with a sense of weary dread, but some with a flourish of optimism that we might be gaining some social, cultural and political freedom to discuss what matters, and what kind of society we want to be as we recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic.

Issues that had previously been considered a low priority have now settled in the centre of the stage. The turmoil following the death of George Floyd, the psychodramas of Brexit here in the UK, along with Trump in the USA. The sudden loss of liberty was shocking, as almost everyone quarantined because of the acute risk to our lives, wellbeing and livelihoods. As I recall, this all came together in a flow of online conversations based around podcasts, webinars, Zoom meetings, and other social media platforms. Many of these conversations were angst-driven, many angry, many reactive, but they all seemed to start from the premise that we simply can’t go back to what we had before, and that we need to start to look at fresh ideas of how to go forward if we are to Build Back Better.

Many of the podcast conversations I listened to considered, not only the impact of the pandemic, but also of climate change, inequality, globalisation, nationalism, racism, technology change, and many other factors that resulted in many Western nations being unprepared for the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking back now, there was an overwhelming wave of enthusiasm for conversations that had the intention of exploring and discovering more about these topics, going into a ‘deep-dive’, rather than simply shutting discussion down because it didn’t fit a pre-conceived model, or lacked personality, or wasn’t driving click-throughs.

These ‘new normal’ conversations often came up when social policy-minded people wanted to speak directly, despite their lack of media skills and experience. They were representative of a broad range of organisations, civic groups, academics and thinkers, and if one was selective, it was possible to cover a broad range of views and values. The lockdown, then, was a time when many people (perhaps) wanted to make the most of the time that was on offer to them, giving many the chance to consider the collective experience that we were all going through. There was, and still is, a lot of grief and anxiety that needs to be shared, so these conversations shouldn’t be brought to an end prematurely.

Many of our families and friends, neighbours and colleagues experienced, perhaps for the first time, a broadly similar social experience to what others were experiencing. We had much more in common for once than what we are told divides us. However, despite this, the pandemic made the problem of inequality and relative differences in social and economic capital more apparent. With stories of celebrity chefs larking about on a beach in Cornwall because they have not just a second home, but many homes, seemed galling when these stories rubbed-up against stories of women working in ‘sweat-shop’ conditions in factories, and who were denied basic protections and dignity in their workplaces. This suggested, to me and many others, that there is a systemic problem of exploitation in our society that needs to be tackled. It was always there, it’s just that the pandemic took the veneer off the surface and revealed the rotten core of our social apparatus we had chosen to ignore for too long.

The pandemic might best be described, then, as a tale of two nations. One in which the wealthy prospered and saved their cash, while many in insecure service industry jobs, often with no recourse to public funds, were left to fend for themselves in an environment that was designed to work against their concerns. The lack of non-English language information was a massive scandal that still needs to be accounted for. Who was looking after the interests of the poorest and the least able to fend for themselves? Ironically, we finally found the resources to provide beds for rough sleepers, even if only temporarily. It only took the mobilisation of the state in a national emergency to provide a minimum safety net for people who are most in need and who are too easily ignored or abandoned.

Over the last year, the practical reality of managing a complex society that is riddled with many irregularities, biases and contradictions, has been encapsulated in slogans that are put out in the media as if, somehow, the slogans themselves can solve the deep-rooted problems that many have chosen to ignore for too long. Build Back Better can’t just be a slogan, and there is the risk that it could become an epithet for a deluded generation who weren’t serious about making the changes that would put our communities onto a more stable footing. Being ready for the future, and being able to pay for that future, are likely to be the key themes that will define our politics for many years to come.

These are some of my observations from the time we’ve spent in lockdown, but rather than confirming them, I’d like to speak to different groups of people, to listen and learn what the lockdown was like for them, and what Building Back Better means to them? Most important, I’d like to find out what we are still learning from the experience of the lockdown, particularly here in Leicester? I’d like to know what conversations and discussions people living and working in Leicester had during the lockdown, especially when these conversations started to focus on the idea of Build Back Better? What does Build Back Better mean in practice for people living and working in a highly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial city? Is Build Back Better just a slogan, or is there some structure and weight behind it? If there is a better term, what is it?

Change is at the centre of the Building Back Better ethos, but what kind of change are we talking about? What is the idea of change associated with Building Back Better based on? Has this been a practical discussion, or is it just an opportunity for lots more talk? Are there things that have been adopted and put into practice that point in the direction of practical changes we can make? What have been the reactions to those practices, and are the changes making real and lasting differences? Is there support from colleagues and partners that encourage and enhance these changes? Has anything proven intransigent and too difficult to change? What’s turned out to be the most adaptable things to change?

Reflection and examination based on hindsight are necessary and essential things for us to do, especially if we are to learn the lessons of the pandemic. I’m keen, therefore, to find out what improvements have been brought about, either intentionally or unintentionally, to the way we do things? Many, perhaps naively, expected change to come at a galloping pace, but that’s not how change feels in practice. Change is usually drawn-out and seems slow. Yet when we look back, we realise how much is different given the time that has past, or how far we have travelled. I think it’s essential to explore the positive dynamics of social change, particularly those that can be held as good examples for others to follow in the future. As we start to make decisions, draw-up new policies, and redirect resources, the essential question I have in mind, is how will Building Back Better affect us in our everyday lives, and will we see the results of in our neighbourhoods and communities?

I’m making a set of radio programmes about Building Back Better in Leicester. If you would like to share your story and experience of coping with change during the pandemic, I’d be interested in hearing from you. Send me a message on Twitter or leave a comment here:

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