A better place

By Arianna Giovannini | 05 May 2020

The COVID19 crisis has thrown into sharp relief the problematic nature of central-local relations in our country. The inequalities spawned by over-centralisation and austerity, and their effect on local authorities and the communities they serve, have been widely exposed. The coronavirus outbreak has now taken the challenge to a whole new level.

Local government has gone above and beyond the call of duty – proving, once again, its incredible resilience. In other countries, such as Germany, a system of cooperative federalism has facilitated effective place-based responses. In England, though, the power hoarding nature of the Westminster model and the ‘messy’ state of sub-national governance that stems from it mean that central government has almost instinctively entered in ‘top down command and control mode’.

Councils were initially told by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to spend whatever it takes to tackle the crisis. A few weeks later, they found themselves with insufficient funding and in some cases on the brink of collapse. The management and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been directed, in a rather poor way, from the centre – undermining essential public service delivery and leaving local councils unable to appropriately support their workforce. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Local authorities have also been sidelined in most key decisions by the centre. Mayors were eventually invited to a ‘recovery plan’ meeting with the Prime Minister last week – but councils’ representatives were not. This bears a warning sign: it shows that the ‘Westminster knows best’ approach remains largely untarnished, it demonstrates that central government still doesn’t value the local state enough, and it suggests that a top-down approach might be the way forward.

This need not happen. If we want to emerge stronger from the pandemic, re-making the case for devolution is essential. Political and economic power cannot be held anymore in the hands of few. It has to be shared and accessible to all local areas, drawing on cooperative rather than competitive principles. And whilst there might be some benefits in having strong leadership at the top, that must be coupled with flexibility at subnational level, as well as trust in and respect for local government. The current crisis should become a reset moment: flipping centralisation on its head, so that recovery can lead to renewal.

Dr Arianna Giovannini is associate professor/reader in local politics and public policy and deputy director of the Local Governance Research Centre at De Montfort University

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