The human cost of centralisation

April 29, 2021   By Jane Dudman

The pandemic has highlighted the gap between local communities and central government. Communities rose to the challenge and came together, central government scrambled to react and lost trust. Jane Dudman explores the year we saw how centralisation affects us all.

Sir Michael Marmot is a distinguished academic and one of the UK’s most influential thinkers on inequality, who advises governments around the world on health and social conditions. 

And what was this serious thinker’s most exciting day out, pre-pandemic? Being driven in a big, red fire engine to a West Midlands fire station. 

This was not simply the fulfilment of a childhood dream. Marmot was there to learn how firefighters’ jobs have changed in a part of the UK where the local authority has taken seriously the recommendations of his seminal 2010 report on inequality, by supporting the development and education of children, encouraging citizens to find employment, and developing community amenities.

As a result, West Midlands firefighters now focus far more on local communities. They provide services for older people, take young people out for adventurous activities, and work closely with other local public services. 

The importance of this focus has become starkly clear in the past year. In February 2020, 10 years on from his first report, Marmot issued a bleak update, describing stalling life expectancy and rising inequality after a decade of cuts to services. 

His subsequent report in November 2020, makes clear just how poorly prepared the UK was to deal with coronavirus, and how inequalities in health and in the social conditions that lead to ill health, have been amplified by the pandemic and the response to it.

Viral mismanagement to vaccine success

The terrible impact of the virus was not just due to the austerity cuts of the previous decade. It was made worse because we live in one of the most centralised countries in the western world. This has had a direct impact on the way the pandemic was handled and the issues have been intensified by growing evidence that the government has abused its power for the benefit of a few, privileged organisations and individuals. 

Recent allegations surfacing about Boris Johnson wilfully risking lives has added to a sense held by many: UK central government has failed its citizens badly. Many thousands of people have suffered as a result; people like Liverpool fan Paul Smith, who died of Covid-19 aged 56, London bus driver Rodolfo Silva, who died aged 58, or Orita Godoy, who died of the virus aged 75. 

The lives of all three, and many more, have been movingly outlined in Sirin Kale’s Guardian series Lost to the Virus, which also investigates how systemic state failures have contributed to families’ suffering. As Godoy’s bereaved daughter, Alejandra, tells Kale, “Government briefings are just numbers, numbers, numbers…But numbers had names. They had families.”

At the start of the pandemic, central government failed to act speedily enough to bring in lockdown measures, and its privatised test and trace system has already cost taxpayers a staggering £22 billion, with no evidence that it reduced Covid-19 infection rates, according to the National Audit Office

In January 2021, UK prime minister Boris Johnson accepted responsibility for the government’s actions, saying he was “deeply sorry” for the lives lost. But he still said the government had done everything it could. Many disagree.

By contrast, the UK’s coronavirus vaccination programme appears to have been a success so far. But Boris Johnson’s recent “off-the-cuff” remark that this was due to “capitalism” and “greed” misses the point about the vital role played by public services at every level of the programme. The programme has been a tremendous collective effort, bringing together the best of central government, local health systems and volunteers.

Central government was able to move fast, setting up its vaccine taskforce in May 2020, and earmarking funds for millions of vaccine shots, not just for UK citizens, but also as part of a global initiative. Local NHS structures have enabled vaccines to be given via GP surgeries but also at new area hubs, using the strengths of the NHS and local authorities to best advantage. They have provided the infrastructure to make the programme possible, while thousands of volunteers have assisted in the rollout: according to the BBC, more than 80,000 volunteers and NHS staff have been trained to administer the jab.

Communities vs Covid

The pandemic has made the value of community even clearer. From allotments to book groups, from food banks to art, people have set up amazing projects, online and in real life, to support one another in new ways. 

Katya Pursall, strategic lead at 10gm, a joint venture between organisations that support voluntary, community and social enterprises in Greater Manchester, says groups in the area were swift to act when the virus struck.

“The beauty of our sector is that we are wonderfully messy and diverse, and can connect up without being stifling,” she says.

“That means we were able, for instance, to mobilise support very quickly during the pandemic. We have been able to channel lots of energy into something positive.” 

Harnessing that power has the ability to create a lasting impact in local areas, she adds, and it’s not always about major projects. Creating a parklet, for instance, doesn’t cost much and can make a big difference to how people feel about their own street, as long as they feel part of the decision.

Or, as Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, has said, “in Whitehall you can only see numbers, not names”.

Local participation helps build grass roots democracy and empowerment. 

All cheques, no balances

There is still a long way to go however. The goodwill and learning generated by the localised vaccine programme is being endangered by the actions of central government. Over the past year local government and community workers have looked on in growing horror at the levels of poor practice and cronyism in central government. Or, as Labour MP Rachel Reeves puts it: “all cheques and no balances”.  

Of course, there is bad practice in some councils, as Max Caller’s scathing report on Liverpool city council has highlighted. But systems that would not have been tolerated for a second in local government have been set up by ministers and officials in Westminster. No council could ever have established a system like the “high priority lane” for PPE procurement, which enabled companies with a direct link to MPs to have a much higher chance of being awarded contracts. In all, the UK government has spent more than £10 billion buying PPE kit via emergency procurement regulations, but a lack of transparency has, according to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, left the government “open to accusations of poor value for money, conflicts of interest and preferential treatment of some suppliers”.

The recent news that industrialist James Dyson texted the prime minister about the tax status of his workers before agreeing to build vital ventilators is yet another example of why trust in central government has been so seriously eroded.

There has been also been controversy over the allocation of the central government’s new towns fund, when it emerged that 39 of the 45 places to receive a share of the first £1 billion in funding are represented by Tory MPs, and that the criteria for funding gave higher preference to people travelling by car rather than by public transport – something that benefits rural over urban areas.

All this undermines the UK government’s stated commitment to “levelling up” poorer areas of the country. While there are many good suggestions in last September’s report by Conservative MP Danny Kruger on how to fulfil this promise, there was little to suggest that central government sees the need to give more autonomy to politicians outside Westminster. Indeed, the Westminster government’s antipathy to devolution, both within England and the UK as a whole, seems to grow by the day.

“What’s driving people spare in local government is a lack of resources to do things locally, when they are seeing vast amounts of money being given to pet projects in central government,” says Professor Colin Talbot, emeritus professor on public policy at the University of Manchester.

More transparency and scrutiny is sometimes seen as an overhead that falls hardest on small bodies. But being open and fair is vital if democracy and participation are to thrive, especially at a local and community level.

Barriers to community power

Some of the risks government took with public money during the pandemic paid off. Others did not. It should also be noted that one of the reasons the programme has been successful is because central government took an enormous punt with taxpayers’ money, placing orders for millions of vaccines before they were regulated and investing “hundreds of millions of pounds upfront” with pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca.

It is these type of calculated risks that central government refuses to let communities do, on a far, far smaller scale, every day. The rules about public sector spending are so tightly controlled by the Treasury that it becomes very difficult for community programmes to thrive. 

When local people want to set up and run a community project, they often face challenging financial hurdles, despite the 2011 Localism Act, which was intended to enable local groups to bid for local assets. 

Local people raised £600,000 to convert this chapel to a community centre in Cambridge

In Cambridge, for instance, local people raised more than £600,000 a few years ago to buy a disused chapel. They wanted to use the space for a nursery, a space for older people to meet and a venue for several local clubs. But the plans, which also included a potential £48,000 grant from Cambridge City Council, were thwarted when the owners said charity law meant they had to put the building up for sale on the open market.

Jessica Studdert, deputy chief executive of New Local, points out that the bar is set impossibly high when it comes to proving the worth of community projects. “What is meaningful to people is often qualitative – relationships or wellbeing, for example,” she writes. “Yet what is required to inform a case for change is largely quantitative – focused on measurable service outputs.”

Ceding trust and control

Trust is a valuable commodity, hard won and easily lost. But there are promising signs that giving local people more freedom can provide a path to build or regain trust. Projects such as providing more green spaces, making roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians, or tackling hate crime can be empowering for local people, given robust, transparent processes. 

Disabled and older people have also been able to strengthen connections online, both informally, through local groups, and supported by councils around the country. Council-funded library services, for instance, have played a major role at the heart of their communities. Online borrowing has soared and librarians have come up with innovative ways to stay engaged with users and each others, from Lego challenges in Orkney to online storytime in Truro.

The pandemic has seen a new wave of community spirit emerge in many different ways, from local WhatsApp groups to check on neighbours, to delivering food and medicines, but many places were already exploring how to sustain communities as state services were eroded.

Involving people in designing services enhances democracy. Examples like Camden’s climate change assembly, convened in 2019 to inform the London borough’s climate policy, are proof of this. The proposals were informed by more than 600 community ideas from residents, school children, businesses and organisations.

Similarly, the Crystal Palace Park Trust, formed in 2016 by a group of local residents passionate about regenerating the park and securing a sustainable future for it for the benefit of the whole community, is now working with Bromley Council on a £40 million regeneration project. 

And in the Somerset town of Frome, independent councillors have run the local council since 2011, with a focus on participation, sustainability, and community wellbeing. 

Moving from a hand-out culture to a hand-up approach requires leadership, support and partnership. As Mark Brown, director of Community Interest Company Social Spider, who is a volunteer with the vaccination programme, comments, the platform provided by the NHS and local authority public services is what makes the programme possible to execute. “Any of us as volunteers can only be of use if that platform is solid and for as long as that platform has the resources it needs to function,” he tweeted. 

Sir Michael Marmot went to the West Midlands because Coventry had taken up his first report and declared itself a “Marmot city”. This can’t just be about one council, or one fire service; it has to involve all local public services and voluntary bodies. “My message to council and community groups is the same: put equity of health and wellbeing at heart of everything you do,” Sir Michael recently told the New Local annual Stronger Things conference.

We need this joined-up thinking to realise the potential of our places. And we need communities to have the power to make brave, difficult decisions. Leaving this risk-taking as the sole preserve of central government’s door only risks further pain.