Now is not the time for Westminster to tighten its centralising grip

By Sarah Longlands | 25 March 2020

In midst of what will perhaps be the biggest crisis of the 21st century, local councils across the UK are being called upon to act in unprecedented ways to support communities, protect the vulnerable – while at the same time taking steps to implement social distancing.

At a time like this, it is tempting for Government to fall back on the idea that the response to this crisis can be directly from Whitehall. Indeed, the daily televised updates have tried to convey the impression of three wise men leading our response in the form of Boris Johnson flanked by his scientific advisers.

While there is a prevailing view that unilateral decisions made by Number 10 are the most efficient way to act, this is misguided. Decisions like the school closures are highly complex, especially when trying to maintain some provision for key workers. Consultation and discussion at an early stage can help to reduce ambiguity, strengthen credibility and maximise the intended outcome of reducing the spread of the virus.

But this requires Westminster to loosen the reins of power and to trust decision-makers in local and combined authorities to know what is right for their communities.

In addition, as COVID-19 spreads, the way the Government acts and responds to the changing context of governance is important. For example, in the North, combined authorities cover 62% of the population. These new mayoral authorities could have had a key role to play in helping to manage the response to coronavirus as well as helping to co-ordinate economic and social recovery in the longer-term.

Now is not the time for Westminster to tighten its centralising grip, but to use devolved and local government structures to support and strengthen its emergency response.

Now more than ever, we need to draw upon the knowledge and understanding of local communities to ensure that people are getting the support that they need.

After so long in the political wilderness, now is the time when policy- makers will rediscover the value and importance of municipal leadership.

Sarah Longlands is director of IPPR North

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