8th June 2020
Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester
Steve Rotheram, Mayor of Liverpool City Region
Response to #BuildBackBetter: A letter from North West Psychologists for Social Change
Psychologists for Social Change are calling for a ‘Just Recovery’ to the COVID-19 crisis, where the health and wellbeing of everyone in society is prioritised over the financial status of big businesses. We are a network of applied psychologists who apply psychology to policy and political action and encourage others to become involved in social change. We are writing to outline what we think a North West ‘Just Recovery’ would look like and welcome your commitment to the Build Back Better campaign.
We believe that our collective vision for the future has overlapping factors; each with the notion of a fair society at its centre. For decades we have seen levels of inequality grow as we have been pulled further into an individualistic narrative, fuelled by a neoliberal ideology. The pandemic has caused a devastating loss of life in the UK, however, it has also caused people to question this ideology, to take time to reflect on their values and what is most important to them. This is particularly pertinent in the North West, an area that historically was a region of huge wealth and stature on a global scale, is now one of the poorest and underfunded in the country. Ravaged by decades of funding cuts, the North West is no stranger to inequality and the impact of this on communities; increasing numbers of homelessness, poverty, job insecurity and psychological distress.
We would like to contribute to the North West’s Build Back Better campaign by highlighting particular areas of social concern and offer insights from a psychological perspective on what a Just Recovery may look like and how this might be put into practice.
The threat of COVID-19 has brought the health of the homeless population into the spotlight and has spurred immediate action, offering temporary accommodation to all deemed to be ‘rough sleeping’. However, as we enter the government’s plan to exit lockdown, it is important to keep asking “what’s next?”. To truly end homelessness, we need to think beyond the offer of a property (whilst recognising that this a very important and necessary first step) and provide the security needed as a foundation to address loss and trauma, whilst helping to foster connections with others, which can protect against the impacts of adversity. We need to end the stigma around homelessness; it should not be an inevitable prospect for those who do not live up to certain societal expectations. Drug and alcohol treatments should be offered non-judgmentally and viewed as a health outcome, rather than a behaviour to be criminalised.
The North West currently relies on food banks more than anywhere else in the UK and it is not surprising that COVID-19 has unfortunately contributed to an increase in food insecurity. No-one living in one of the largest economies in the world should not be able to afford basic necessities such as food. However, our economy is hugely driven by the City of London, leaving other UK cities behind in terms of wealth. Therefore, when the City collapsed, so did the rest of us. The strict austerity measures of 2010 saw a surge of people living in poverty and relying on welfare. This was coupled with the transition to Universal Credit, which through COVID-19 many more people are now reliant on. There have been multiple news articles of people expressing anguish at how little they would receive (How is £94 a week going to pay anyone’s bills?; BBC). Even Matt Hancock admitted that he didn’t expect others to live off this amount, stating “I think we’ve got to support everybody”. However, his definition of everybody is interesting given thousands have been expected to live on this amount since Universal Credit came into force. It introduces a dangerous narrative suggesting a level of deservedness and value in society. Expectations also differ, with those who are claiming due to COVID-19 not having to accept claimant commitment. We need to move away from valuing people based on their economic contributions to society and treat every person with equal rights, regardless of their circumstances.
Stress due to adversity and inequality directly affect health outcomes. The likelihood of developing a long-term health condition is strongly influenced by geographical region due to issues such as those outlined above. In the North West, this can be observed in heightened rates of; diabetes, circulatory diseases, cancers, respiratory diseases and mental health difficulties compared to national averages. Existing health conditions are linked to greater severity of COVID-19 symptoms (with many cases resulting in death), therefore it is hoped that the positive steps put in place to protect those at increased risk will be maintained. Your recent stance on applying easing measures guided by the regional COVID-19 figures, rather than national guidance, could work to protect many in our communities.
We also welcome your commitment to investing in a cleaner, more environmentally friendly society. We have observed larger numbers of people using green spaces during lockdown and the use of air-polluting vehicles decrease. Evidence shows that access to green and blue spaces has a positive impact on psychological wellbeing. Given that the North West has some of the highest numbers of anxiety and depression diagnoses in England, it would not only serve to create a healthier community, but can be economically sustainable. This should not stop at green spaces, but also extend to urban planning, developing healthy places through creative use of design. Environments that rely heavily on car-use leads to increased sedentary lifestyles and social isolation. Neighbourhoods should encourage connection to others and the environment, improving both physical and psychological wellbeing for everyone.
The key message behind a Just Recovery is that it needs to benefit everyone in society. To truly Build Back Better, we need to speak and listen to individuals from all communities; of all ages, ethnicities and different faith backgrounds, those with disabilities and those who are experiencing psychological distress, and individuals from the LGBT communities. We must do this collaboratively with a genuine desire for partnership and making existing spaces safe, minimising the risk of inviting individuals into spaces which replicates previous traumas they may have experienced. Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of participation highlights the importance of moving beyond tokenism towards genuine partnership and beyond. We know that COVID-19 disproportionately affects BAME people and so we cannot design safe practices without involving the BAME community. The North West is not immune from issues of discrimination, with the highest rate of racist incidents reported to the police in England and Wales outside of London. Organisations such as Manchester-based ‘Kids of Colour’ are already working hard to raise awareness and provide support to children, families and appropriate stakeholders of those impacted by racism, however we need to accept that actions aimed at tackling racism is everyone’s responsibility.
The North West does not shy away from doing things differently and it feels that we have a real opportunity to shape the future determined by the needs of the local population. To really inspire change you have to motivate people on the ground, rather than impose a top-down approach that (in)advertently oppresses the wider voice. George Monbiot writes that ultimately, human nature is centred around cooperation and altruism; that the majority will always aspire to do good rather than harm. This has been seen through the many charitable acts during this pandemic and how people have been quick to act to help others and bring back a sense of community. There is evidence that people in the North West believe in a fairer society as reflected in the last general election results and the power of this collective voice should not be underestimated; lets invest in a bottom-up policy approach including all members of our society. The benefits of ever-increasing economic growth have been shown to have a ceiling effect, and we have certainly hit that ceiling, and arguably are on a downward trajectory. It is time to move on from a preoccupation with economic growth and work towards a Just Recovery that benefits all in our society.
Equality is the best therapy.
- ‘We’re in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat’
- ‘Collective empowerment - strength in diversity’
- ‘Suffering and healing together - a social approach’
North West Psychologists for Social Change
Dr Stephanie Davis Le Brun - Clinical Psychologist
Dr Charlotte Thompson - Clinical Psychologist
Laura Middlebrook - Assistant Psychologist
Emma Limon - Trainee Clinical Psychologist
Camilla Hogg - Trainee Clinical Psychologist
Charlie Piper - NHS Professional
Dr Stephen Weatherhead - Clinical Psychologist