An open Letter to Michael Gove from New Local

September 22, 2021   By New Local team

Dear Michael,

Congratulations on your appointment as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Your cross-Whitehall role to drive improvements that genuinely build back better and new responsibility for UK-wide government relations means your position is pivotal to the Government fulfilling its ambitions.

Deep regional inequality mars our country, holding back too many people and places from fulfilling their potential. This has built up over decades and to overturn it will require a very different, radical approach. More of the same will not be sufficient.

We at New Local write this open letter in the hope that some of our ideas about how to approach your new priorities are useful.

Give communities the power they need to level up

Our communities have enormous energy and insight that traditional policymaking often overlooks. The rapid response of mutual aid groups as the Covid crisis unfolded demonstrated the power of neighbour supporting neighbour. Communities have the best insight into what needs to change so that they can thrive.  

If communities themselves were at the heart of decisions over spending to support them, the evidence shows we would have better, more sustainable outcomes from investment. Community power is not a replacement for well-funded and effective public services, they need to work together to leverage their shared potential. National government needs to understand and enable this at a local level.

Inequality and centralisation are directly linked. So, levelling up is impossible without proper devolution

You’ll hear this a lot, but for good reason: we live in one of the most centralised countries in the western world. Too many decisions about how resource is spent are made nationally, with diminished local returns as a result. It might sound counter-intuitive to suggest that a Secretary of State makes it his business to relinquish control, but we believe that you will have more impact this way.

There are no levers you can pull in your Whitehall office that will generate action across the country. Devolution to date has been too distant from people and focussed on new structures. Instead, genuine change can be achieved by giving local partners the autonomy and resource to be more responsive to the different circumstances of their places, and to work with communities as equals. Only by shifting power out of government buildings and into places can levelling up become meaningful to people.  

Work with, not around local government to level up

Levelling up cannot be achieved without local government. As democratically elected institutions, they work within, and are intrinsically part of, their communities. Too often, national decisions result in new structures that bypass councils, and fragment how resource is spent in an area. This is costly, overly complex and diverts institutional energy away from communities themselves.

In local government you will find a sector that is passionate about their communities, pragmatic in how they can best meet their needs, and built from a workforce often drawn directly from the area. Despite the extremely uncertain operating context they work within, and after 18 months on an emergency footing, you will meet people utterly dedicated to public service and ready to work with you. 

The decision has already been taken to remove the words ‘local government’ from your department’s title. We hope you will nonetheless recognise how pivotal councils are to the Government’s success in moving ‘levelling up’ from a branding exercise and into practice. And that you will back up that recognition with the respect, responsibility and resource to allow councils to get on with their jobs.

You can’t level up by making cuts

Of course, we can’t end this letter without mentioning the f-word: funding. After over a decade of austerity and a global pandemic, councils are looking at enormous budget shortfalls next year and no room left to manoeuvre. Social care is in crisis, pressures on the NHS continue to mount, and the short-term measures announced to date haven’t addressed the scale of the challenge. Any genuine commitment to levelling up needs to address this urgently.

Failure to ensure local financial resilience has enormous knock-on effects for our communities. Councils are the safety net of last resort for some of the most vulnerable children and adults in our society. And across communities there is a need for investment in neighbourhoods, housing and shared public spaces, not to mention urgent measures to respond to climate change. For too long, councils have been doing their best despite government decisions, rather than being enabled by national policy to have the best impact possible in their locality.

The upcoming Spending Review is an important opportunity to signal your commitment to levelling up communities and to working with local government to achieve this.

When it comes to public spending, the Treasury will be mindful of costs – you are well-placed to advocate powerfully for an understanding of value. People’s sense of pride in their place, or perception of its decline, is directly linked to whether they feel their community is respected and invested in by ‘the powers that be’.

Simply announcing a new initiative or diverting resource into a new funding pot will not be sufficient. Councils, communities and partners in places need the assurance of long-term funding certainty that they can plan around and work together to ensure the impact is felt by everyone.

We share your vision for a country in which everyone, everywhere is able to fulfil their potential. We wish you the best as you embark on realising this in practice, and look forward to working with you,

Yours,

New Local

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