Has councils’ Covid response boosted – or blighted – the case for devolution?

September 16, 2020   By Charlotte Morgan, Senior Policy Researcher, NLGN, 16 September, 2020

While devolution might be set back by the government’s centralising instincts, which have been laid bare during the pandemic, this is counterbalanced by the support councils have won through their competent response, writes senior policy researcher Charlotte Morgan.

The UK government announced last month that the devolution and local recovery white paper (my emphasis) will be published this autumn. The name change – from simply the devolution white paper – is the clearest indication yet that the Covid-19 pandemic has implications for English devolution.

But what else can we forecast for the future of devolution from the UK’s response to Covid-19? Will local government’s agility and tenacity in tackling the pandemic mean it is now trusted more? Or has the crisis simply imbedded the instinct to keep things strong and central?

The bad news for devo fans

Crisis tends to bring out people’s true colours. This UK government has been in place for only nine months, six of which so far have been spent in Covid-19 crisis mode, and its strong centralising instincts have been laid bare for all to see. Look beyond ministers’ soothing words about ‘levelling up’ and remember some of the things that have happened (or didn’t happen) since March:

  • The government and other national bodies consistently failed to share public health data and real-time information on Covid-19 cases with local authorities.
  • The government promised local authorities financial support to do ‘whatever it takes’ to respond to Covid-19, and then broke its promise after only a few weeks.
  • Local resilience forums claimed that the government’s ‘one-size-fits-all’, uncommunicative and controlling approach to managing the crisis made it difficult for them to plan their local responses.
  • The government decided in early May to centralise and outsource the UK’s test-and-trace system, only involving local expertise in their plans weeks later.
  • A government minister (Matt Hancock) fronted up the announcement about Leicester’s extended lockdown rather than the city’s own politicians.
  • A government minister (Mr Hancock, again) announced a significant change in government guidelines affecting shielded people on Twitter before local health officials and GPs were informed of it.
  • Weeks later, Mr Hancock (again) announced stricter lockdown measures in Greater Manchester and parts of Lancashire and West Yorkshire on his Twitter page two hours before the measures were due to come into effect.

That’s not to mention how care homes were exposed to the virus to protect NHS capacity; how the government has decided to replace Public Health England with a new centralised body in the middle of the pandemic; and how local government’s bleak financial position now makes it difficult for councils to take on new devolved responsibilities. Nor how, at least until Simon Clarke resigned this week, the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government’s ministers have been talking more enthusiastically about the white paper’s proposals to reorganise local government and enable economic “recovery” than about devolution per se.

This is not the conduct of a government that is committed to local devolution. We don’t need a trip to Barnard Castle to see that clearly.

The good news for devo fans

Supporters of English devolution know that their case is all the more compelling due to the experience of Covid-19 lockdown: local responses were the most powerful, operating at a scale where public services and communities could come together with knowledge of their local area and target support at those who needed it most. Meanwhile, the economic and social impacts of Covid-19 will be different around the country, and recovery is therefore best planned and implemented at place level. Devolution would give combined and local authorities more decision-making and revenue-raising powers to develop bespoke locally led plans to ‘build back better’.

We need to continue making these arguments, even if this government is likely to ignore them, because other ears are now listening. Local government should not underestimate the goodwill it has gained by responding so comprehensively and compassionately to the pandemic. During lockdown, many people relied on their local authority for the first time and were impressed with their care – an Local Government Association survey found 70% of respondents were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ satisfied with how their council supported them and their household. At a Core Cities event last month on economic recovery, CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn said businesses were previously ambivalent about local devolution, but have changed their minds after seeing how local responses to the pandemic were led so effectively. The CBI will now be a stronger voice in support of devolution.

If a government obsessed with command-and-control and centralisation of power appears to have shut the door on meaningful devolution, local government needs to find another way in. The successful local response to Covid offers a small window of opportunity. We need to make our arguments for devolution differently, and be more inclusive of local businesses and communities, because we cannot make them alone.

Perhaps the word ‘devolution’ needs to be moved aside in favour of the more accessible ‘local power’. A coalition of civil society calling for local power might be more effective now than a devolution proposal signed off by local authorities and the usual partners. It might even attract the attention of Conservative politicians in marginal seats looking nervously at the UK’s high Covid-19 death rate.

The local response to Covid-19 has brought local government allies in unexpected places. The future of devolution – of local power – depends on local authorities bringing them together and working alongside them, so that places and civil society speak out with one unstoppable voice.

This was first published in the Local Government Chronicle

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