268: Central vs Local: The post COVID-19 battleground
With the government providing more details of the way out of lockdown, we can start to see the new dividing lines of politics, the challenges that we will face but also the constructive areas for engagement. One of the main areas of concern will be the extent to which we see more centralisation of power.
The extent to which central government likes to retain control is nothing new. An often cited criticism of the coalition government was the extent to which all the key decision was kept in Number 10 and Number 11 whilst austerity was devolved to local authorities. Of course, there have been some notable devolutionary measures with the introduction of the devolved institutions and mayors, but powers and finances are more limited than advocates want. Central government still retains the ‘final decision’ in many areas, often ‘directs’, makes local authorities compete against each other for funds and does still like centrally established targets.
The level of responsibilities on local authorities have increased during the COVID-19 lockdown. Central government has set the policies and directions but the delivery and implementation has fallen to local authorities. That is to say nothing of the additional support hubs for their communities that have been established, as well as having to swiftly work out how to contend with everything from consultation and planning issues, through to keeping staff safe and procurement requirements. For a more in-depth look at some these challenges see our Local Government bulletin.
But at we start to come out of lockdown there will be some big battles across government as to the future direction of the country and how best to deal with the consequences, not least financial.
In the first place, the one which is already being played out across the media is more tax vs public spending cuts. The reality of this battle is that neither option would win so a third way will emerge which focuses on growth in a post-Brexit context with de-regulation at its heart. It will be a global Britain on steroids. There are all sorts of potential ramification for this, not least for the areas or sectors that are de-regulated.
Another issue is that of the extent of central, as opposed to local, control as we come out of lockdown. The Comprehensive Spending Review should provide more clues as to the approach being taken but that has been delayed from July 2020. The reality is though that the case for certainty on local government finance and ‘who should be controlling what’ needs to be made to government, in particular, HM treasury now.
There is a strong argument that local areas should be making the decisions related to their needs as we come out of lockdown. That approach would also be consistent with the promise of devolution and Devolution White Paper (for England) in the conservative party election manifesto.
However, across Brexit negotiations, decisions on the lockdown and coming out of it, and in other areas of policy, there are criticisms aired of a highly centralised decision-making process.
There is a danger that central government will choose to retain complete control over the post COVID-19 response that would relegate local government to a mere supporting role. The recently published ‘Our Plan To Rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy’ appears to give the government carte blanche to restructure the public sector:
‘This (navigating towards recovery) will require a rapid re-engineering of government’s structures and institutions to deal with this historic emergency and also build new long-term foundations for the UK, and to help the rest of the world’.
So rather than the capacity to solve problems being devolved, the fear is that instructions from central government will be handed down.
So for those who believe that local control will help navigate towards recovery and beyond, now is the time to make your case forcefully to government.