The Government’s announcement of new local lockdown measures prompted a political uproar in the North of England. After months of miscommunication and restrictions imposed from the top-down, metro mayors and local leaders are not going to take any more diktats from Whitehall.
Their argument is sound: how can the Government pretend to implement effective local lockdowns in the North if, despite continued efforts, local leaders are kept in the dark, hear about new restrictions through press releases and see their advice ignored? There is nothing local or ‘place-sensitive’ in measures packaged in Whitehall and forced on to communities in the North.
The resentment this is creating cannot be underestimated. There is a growing feeling among leaders and people in the North that they are being treated with contempt by Whitehall. This will have long-term political and socio-economic consequences, further widening existing divides. It is exposing the limits of the short-term approach of the Government to devolution, based on grand narratives, quick fixes, limited autonomy and lack of trust.
As a result, while the Government should seek to ‘make friends’ in the North, it is now finding its harsher opponents in political and spatial architectures of its own making in the region. This is a reminder that, as secretary of state for Wales Ron Davies aptly warned back in 1997, ‘devolution is a process, not an event’ and once set in motion, the institutions that stem from it, such as metro mayors, cannot be fully controlled by the centre, no matter how hard the Government tries.
Despite their limited formal power and resources, metro mayors in the North are showing the strength of their leadership and influencing powers – challenging Whitehall’s approach to local lockdowns and refusing to abide by it. They are showing people and places cannot be turned into political slogans at the Government’s whim. The Northern Powerhouse and ‘levelling up’ mean nothing if local leaders are not firmly at the helm. The politics of the ‘Red Wall’ was always problematic: it reduced the complex and diverse socio-economic dynamics of the North into a soundbite – and now it’s coming home to roost.
Dr Arianna Giovannini is deputy director of the Local Governance Research Centre (LGRC) and associate professor/reader in local politics and public policy at De Montfort University