Interview: Camden leader Georgia Gould on steering the borough through a pandemic

It's been a time of great loss and hardship, yet causes for optimism have still shone through

What has the last year been like for you and the Council?

It’s been a deeply difficult year for all of us, and for our communities. We’ve seen terrible loss and have all been impacted in some way. We’ve sadly seen over a 150% increase in unemployment in the borough, and the crisis around poverty is likely to be with us long into the future.

The pandemic has also made many people very anxious, so we have a big increase in those needing extra support with mental health issues. So the Council have set up a range of services, whether it’s delivering testing, supporting vaccinations or helping out with food parcel delivery.

But the other story of the year has been the extraordinary way the communities have come together. We’ve seen neighbours support each other, the flourishing of mutual aid groups, and the way our voluntary sector stepped up, along with businesses – many of whom were having a tough time themselves – to come out and support the community. You discover a lot about where you live in tough times, and it’s been clear Camden is a place that deeply cares.

When Covid infection rates elsewhere in London and the UK were really high, Camden’s thankfully remained fairly low. Why do you think that was?

It’s something that we are looking into, because we do have a lot of problems here that are sadly associated with higher impact of the disease, whether that’s overcrowding, residents who can’t afford not to go out to work, or the disproportionate impact on particular Black and Asian communities. Many people have still suffered and we’re not totally out of the woods yet, but again, I think the community have really stepped up and listen to the messages, and that’s made a huge difference.

We’ve also seen the importance of green spaces, and Camden is a particularly green borough. People have told us how much they appreciate that. I also know that our public heath team has been extraordinary, working with schools and businesses to keep people safe. We obviously haven’t got everything right all the time, but I think if everyone continues to be careful as we open up, then we can continue to make good progress.

Deserted streets around King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, lockdown in June 2020

There’s a cautious optimism about getting back to all the things we’ve missed in lockdown, and for everywhere to be able to fully open again, so how is the Council ensuring this goes as safely and smoothly as possible?

Part of the healing from Covid is being able to start connecting again. As things open up, it’s pretty wonderful to have some kind of hope after having gone through all this.

We’re really excited that our cultural institutions will be coming together to deliver a summer festival called Camden Together, which will predominantly be held outside. It will bring lots of activities out onto our streets and parks as a safe way to celebrate the cultural sector, which has been hit so hard by Covid. We’re going to be launching a fund for freelancers to put on artistic activities, and we’ve been working really hard to support outside dining, with lots more ‘streateries’, too.

I don’t think we can underestimate how important high streets are in connecting people and therefore benefiting mental health and supporting local jobs, so we do encourage people to shop locally and support local businesses that have been hurt during the pandemic.

There’s been a lot of debate about changes to society and the environment after Covid, so how can we ensure positive change does happen, while also trying to keep as many people as possible happy?

I think people have gained a new appreciation of their neighbourhoods and have a real desire to support them now. High streets were under threat before the pandemic, but we’ve all been realising how important they actually are. In fact, some of our markets that were struggling before Covid have really boomed as people have shopped locally, so we really want to build upon those habits.

We have ambitious plans for greening our shopping streets and turning them into beautiful places with great public realm, ensuring the are easy to walk to and have a mix of cultural, creative and entrepreneurial uses. This includes the West End too, with a new park at Tottenham Court Road coming soon which will be a great new asset for the community.

Camden High Street empty on a Bank Holiday Sunday, May 2020

Camden, like many places, has taken a lot of action to improve things for pedestrians and cyclists. We’ve put in a huge amount of new cycling space that we hope will open up cycling to children and families. But roads certainly are contested spaces, and is still important that those who need to use a car can get around.

There are no easy decisions when it comes to the use of use of the road, but the principles we’re trying to hold onto are supporting health while supporting people to get around the borough safely. It’s not always easy, but I hope that people will start to see that when we free up space for the community like this, it can be really transformative.

How else do you feel things can improve as we look towards the future?

The pandemic has really exposed the depth of the inequalities in our society, while alongside that we have an economy that has not been addressing the urgency climate crisis, so we don’t want to just go back to how things were.

We need to renew and come together to solve some of these big challenges. The flourishing on community spirit over this period has been amazing, and has shown that solutions don’t always have to be financial, they are about participation, time resources and the fact that if we all put some effort into making things better, it works for everyone.

This interview was first published in print guide Camdenist Presents Unlockdown, distributed to the front doors of all 270,000 residents in the borough for free.

Missed it? You can read and/or download a PDF of the full print edition here

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