Work together to shape a new environment

May 04, 2020

Cllr Sam Crooks, Mayor of Milton Keynes.

His term as Mayor of Milton Keynes ends this month. In his final column for www.businessmk.co.uk, Cllr Sam Crooks calls for a visionary and brave approach to the future

BEFORE COVID-19 – which seems so long ago now – I often used to be asked what it was like being Mayor. I would reply that what I most enjoyed was the constant element of surprise. Having lived here for so long I thought I knew the city well.  But almost every day a new organisation or activity would pop up in the invitation list that I knew nothing about. It’s that vibrancy, innovation and self-belief in our city that I find so powerful.

But nothing prepared me – nor any of us, I suspect – for COVID-19. I’ve been really proud of the way Milton Keynes Council has provided civic leadership. We have established a local support service, telephoning everyone we believed to be vulnerable so that we could deliver groceries and medicines directly to their homes. We funded an expansion of the Food Bank’s work.  

We facilitated Community Action:MK, the co-ordinating body for most of our local charities and non-profits, to complement these essential services both on estates and with specific groups of people. We set up an Emergency Appeal Fund with the Community Foundation which has already raised £205,000 allowing us to support over 30 local community groups who are assisting others.

A dedicated team is dealing with business grants. We are supporting a number of our key suppliers financially so that they can be ready to resume work when present constraints are released. A number of our schools remain open for the children of key workers. 

And there is daily liaison between the hospital and our social care teams. Completely new requirements have also had to be envisaged, scoped and delivered, most notably the use of Planet Ice as a mortuary.   

After COVID-19, what then? In the shorter term I hope that the council, with local businesses and the voluntary sector, will think imaginatively about how we chart the way forward. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the USA after the Great Depression or Harry Truman’s Marshall Plan to rebuild the nations of Europe after the Second World War were wonderful interventions of vision and political courage. 

We will need a similar approach in our city. We won’t be fully free from some measure of self-isolation and social distancing until a vaccine has been created and is in production. The danger of a second outbreak and a repeat of all the government’s financial assistance will be too great.

Rather than simply resurrecting last January’s business plans, financial forecasts and election manifestos I would rewrite them. Individuals, schools, charities, businesses and the council will all have to adjust to new environments, including loss of financial support and stagnant markets. And there will be significant debts to pay. We will need to work together to shape this new environment.

In the longer term I hope that we will rediscover some of the basic values that underlie our society. Over recent decades we have been moving towards a position where everything we do has to operate as if it were a market, equating price with value.  The dynamism of private capital is essential. But a humane society must regard health, education, family life, reasonable working conditions and care for the vulnerable as equally important.

Eventually we may come to see COVID-19 as a wake-up call. Approaching us with increasing urgency is the challenge of climate change. That will radically change how we live and work in both the public and private sectors, not least in Milton Keynes with our unusual urban design. I hope that the council and the business community will face this challenge together, drawing on each other’s experience and values.

This is my last column for Business MK as my Mayoral term of office is about to end. May I thank the editor for the forbearance with which he has treated my insouciant approach to deadlines and word length. And my thanks also to all of those who responded to my articles – sometimes quite vigorously – from different points of view and experience. 

My closing sentence is to emphasise again that the council and our city can only be the stronger for an active, articulate, engaged business community that does not hesitate to make its voice heard when it matters.

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