WE are all finding new ways of working during lockdown, but what can this tell us about how we need to change in the future? The job of an MP during lockdown is very different. Generally, I spend more than half of the week at Westminster, and work Fridays and weekends in my constituency. My casework team support people in the constituency every day and I hold a surgery typically once a week for people who want to speak to me directly.

However, in the current crisis, like many people, I am working from home and so my job has become more desk-bound, and while Parliament is not sitting, I have much more time on my hands to focus on constituency work. Which is just as well, as my office is inundated with emails and calls from anxious constituents.

In order to make sure the needs of my constituents are met, I have been spending a lot of time speaking to community workers and volunteers across Edinburgh South West, and the good news is that the crisis has led to a flourishing of community work and outreach projects.

From city-centre communities such as Fountainbridge and Gorgie/Dalry, through to village communities on the outskirts of the city like Balerno, existing local organisations are joining forces with a host of new volunteers and people who are good neighbours to make sure no one is left without a helping hand during lockdown.

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Community hubs such as Space in Broomhouse and the Healthy Living Agency and Whale Arts in Wester Hailes have joined forces with smaller enterprises across Edinburgh South West to ensure that vulnerable families, children and older people are supported and fed while schools are closed and many older people are confined to their homes. The Heart of Midlothian football club’s offshoot Big Hearts Community Trust, which has a particular focus on kinship carers, is working alongside them.

All these organisations faced a dilemma about how to respond to those in need while keeping staff and volunteers safe, bearing in mind the risk that both they and vulnerable service users could be carrying the virus but not showing symptoms.

They decided to create a distributed community network which enables organisations across the constituency to share knowledge resources and risk without getting in the way of the work of individual organisations. There is no hierarchy, but rather a community working together with small numbers of workers or volunteers operating across a variety of venues using digital platforms to swap ideas, facts and processes. This model of working means that if one organisation’s staff or volunteers become unwell, staff or volunteers from another can step in to help.

At the same time, local people are encouraged to be good neighbours and, assuming they are fit and well, to check on those who live alone, help with grocery shopping, take bins out and walk dogs – while always following the NHS advice. Across the constituency, Facebook and WhatsApp groups have sprung up to facilitate this good neighbourliness. Local faith communities are also very much involved.

Community councils are rising to the occasion. The City of Edinburgh Council has won plaudits for its online information services during the crisis and the way in which it has also encouraged the good neighbour approach. The council is co-ordinating volunteers through Volunteer Edinburgh with a dedicated Covid-19/coronavirus page listing advice on how to fulfil your role as a good neighbour, and how to do so safely. Helping as a neighbour can be more flexible than a formal volunteering role for people during this unprecedented crisis, and many are keen to offer their time.

Shopworkers across Scotland have really stepped up during the Covid-19 outbreak and local corner shops have come into their own, which is why I tabled an Early Day Motion in the Commons in support of our local shopkeepers.

For example, Dennis and Lynda Williams at the Oxgangs Broadway convenience store have been doing really amazing work supporting folk with home deliveries of groceries and home-cooked meals, and making multiple round trips to ensure vulnerable folk who have to isolate can still top up gas and electricity meters. They have also launched a hardship fund to help local people facing financial hardship as a result of the crisis.

In recognition of the power of grassroots activism, early on in the crisis, the First Minister urged the SNP and the wider independence movement to use their networks to deliver help and assistance during the crisis. Reports from SNP branches suggest this is going well.

So, what can we learn from this extraordinary generosity of spirit and pragmatic response for the way in which our country is run? The death of care worker Catherine Sweeney, who dedicated 20 years of her life to helping the vulnerable in her community, reminds us that people like her are the backbone of our society and we must think how better we can recognise that and celebrate their valuable contribution.

Equally, our local democratic systems can learn much from these models of community-based working which seem to be flourishing and providing an immediate and valuable lifeline during this health crisis.

My fellow National columnist Lesley Riddoch has written frequently about the shortcomings of local democracy in Scotland. This is not to criticise our councils, but to make the point that the average “local” council in Scotland serves a population 17 times the European average; the physical size is almost 66 times larger than the average German council, and it is not the ideal model for service delivery.

What the current crisis shows is that community-led service provision models work well with an ability to reach those in need quickly and safely. They are also sustainable. One of the lessons to be learned from the crisis is that small is beautiful. Let’s hope this is a lesson we can take forward when reshaping local democracy in the future.

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