EXCLUSIVE: Local areas left in the dark by government

By Dan Peters | 13 May 2020

Central government excluded local partners from key intelligence and failed to share enough information, hampering the response to coronavirus, an interim operational review leaked to The MJ has found.

A rapid thematic analysis by the C-19 national foresight group, a cross-government and partnership team created to support local resilience forums beyond COVID-19, heard that central government mainly engaged in ‘broadcasting,’ with communication ‘only one way’.

The review highlighted how central government did not trust local resilience forums (LRF) enough to share key data on expected coronavirus deaths, as previously reported by The MJ.

One contributor to the review described information sharing by central government as ‘woefully lacking’ while another said the process was ‘peppered with surprise announcements at various tiers of government, resulting in partners being on the back foot and having to plan/communicate live rather than prepare (and with stretched resources)’.

One quoted contributor said: ‘The lack of clear data from the MHCLG [Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] to inform our planning has been less than helpful.

'Data is being cobbled together from PHE [Public Health England] and other sources but remains patchy and fails to instil confidence in partners.’

The review read: ‘Due to paucity of information and intelligence, LRFs feel isolated from national decision-making and unable to effectively plan and strategise response.

‘An unidirectional pattern quickly established in the response, and requests for tasks and information were coming out of central government and to LRF partnerships, but when questions or clarity requests were going back in to MHCLG or other departments there was a long delay for answers, hindering the effectiveness of the response.

‘We need to learn from our experiences so far and make immediate changes while responding; lives are still at stake.’

Chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, Clive Betts, said: ‘The findings of this report are entirely disappointing.

'This crisis has probably accentuated a way of working by central government that’s always been there.

‘There is a recognition that local government has done tremendously well in responding to this crisis.

'If local government had been involved more closely the response to this crisis would undoubtedly have been better.’

Richard Stokoe, who lectures at the University of South Wales on planning for disasters and civil contingencies, added: ‘In their defence, it is a unique set of circumstances that they’re trying to deal with, but there has always been a historic failure of Westminster to talk to councils.

'There has always been a feeling in central government that it knows better than local government.

‘During this period you’re not going to get leopards changing their spots.

'It’s not going to happen overnight but there needs to be a new way of looking at local government.’

A former senior civil servant said: ‘The findings of this review are not surprising.

'Ministers were going to live or die by their response to coronavirus.

‘We’re already quite a centralised country but this administration in particular likes centralising.

'Boris keeps quite a tight rein on power.’

A senior local government source added: ‘Some of these lessons need to be learnt very quickly.

'It’s positive that they’re doing this.

'Hopefully they’ll listen to some of the lessons coming through.

‘There’s been a general frustration from local government’s perspective.

'Part of that is that local government hasn’t necessarily been trusted.

‘However, part of the culture is changing.

'With Brexit and this, there have certainly been closer and better working relationships.’

An MHCLG spokesman said: 'Councils, LRFs and other local partners are doing invaluable work in their communities across the country and supported by government.

'They are a highly trusted community who have regular contact with ministers and officials.

'We share information from across government along with key data on a daily basis so that they can take decisions and make the appropriate plans locally to tackle the pandemic.'

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