Now and again it is helpful to step back and assess the performance of central Government in a broader context, and to think afresh about the role of local government within our system of governance.
It is troubling to record that the UK is the European country with the highest number of deaths caused by the COVID-19 virus. With 59,051 deaths the UK Government’s performance in responding to the pandemic is, when compared with other countries, very poor indeed.
Is this failure of Government partly explained by the super-centralisation of power in Whitehall?
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London certainly think so. In an article published in The Telegraph on 15 September 2020 they made a heartfelt plea to central Government to drop the ‘addiction to centralisation and go back to an age-old principle: only do centrally what must be done centrally’.
The church leaders explained that local public health teams are best qualified to deal with local outbreaks, and argued that it is essential to trust the local, and make sure that it is resourced, trained, informed and empowered.
In a new book, Cities and communities beyond COVID-19 – How local leadership can change our future for the better, I draw on examples of successful civic leadership, at home and abroad, not just to widen the conversation about strategies for recovering from COVID-19, but also to identify lessons on how to address the climate emergency and tackle inequality in society.
A key finding to emerge from this international analysis is that countries with powerful systems of local government are more successful because they enable local leaders to tap into local civic capacity.
Take, for example, Germany. This is a country with a significantly larger population than the UK (84 million as against 68 million) that has recorded only 17,188 deaths. Put another way, the COVID-19 death rate per million people in the UK is 868, a rate that is more than four times higher than the figure for Germany (205).
Explaining the German success
There are several reasons why Germany is doing far better than the UK. The country was much better prepared, has a better resourced health care system, was very quick to introduce a COVID-19 test and trace system – and German citizens have a relatively high level of trust in all levels of Government.
Most important, power in Germany is decentralised. The country’s federal system ensures that the 16 states are able to make their own decisions on priorities and, in addition, municipal health and local authorities have substantial autonomy.
In my book, I highlight the achievements of civic leaders in Freiburg, a remarkably innovative small city in southern Germany. However, the more important general point is that all German local authorities are far more powerful than their UK counterparts and this bolsters their capacity to co-create solutions with local people.
Local authorities have the constitutional right to do things differently and, in some areas, directly elected mayors control the local hospitals.
Lessons for the UK
In Germany, high quality understanding of the diversity of local communities was built into governmental decision-making from the beginning of the pandemic and the results have been impressive.
There are three overlapping reasons why place and, more specifically, place-based leadership, should be given far more prominence in the future.
First, place forms an important part of our identity as human beings. This emotional connection to people living nearby has underpinned a remarkable upsurge in community-based caring and compassion in recent months. Wise local leaders, as they co-construct their post COVID-19 recovery plans, are able to engage with and support these place-based civic energies.
Second, if central Governments recognise and take advantage of the power of place they can enhance governmental effectiveness. It is self evident that places are different. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the Government should have partnered closely with elected local authorities in order to tap into place-based knowledge.
Instead, the Government ignored the advice of local public health directors and introduced a highly centralised approach to the management of the COVID-19 crisis. Thus, hundreds of millions of pounds were allocated to private sector companies to deliver a highly centralised test-and-trace system, and the performance of these companies has been unsatisfactory.
A third reason for valuing place in public policy is that place provides the spatial underpinnings for the exercise of democracy. The longstanding and fundamental arguments in favour of local government are highly relevant in this context.
For a variety of reasons public trust in democracy has, in many countries, been eroded. In countries that value local democracy, citizen participation is vibrant and influential, and this provides a robust countervailing force to those populists who appear to think that societal ills can be effectively addressed by distant autocrats exercising top-down control.
Robin Hambleton is emeritus professor of city leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol and director of Urban Answers. His new book, Cities and Communities Beyond COVID-19 – How local leadership can change our future for the better is published by Bristol University Press.
The figures presented in this article relate to 1 December 2020. Source: Worldometer. https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/