Much has been written through the COVID-19 pandemic about central-local relations, and in particular the centralising tendencies of government in the face of underutilised capabilities among local actors, best exemplified by the continuing test and trace ‘journey’ from initial top down solutions, to more localised and blended arrangements.
Less has been written about the missing role of intermediary agencies, other than the ‘metro mayors’, and in particular those agencies that largely no longer exist.
I have written previously about the sweeping away of such arrangements by the 2010-15 Government, and how their approach was driven by the desire to remove layers of governance, whether that was strategic health authorities and primary care trusts, regional development agencies, local education authorities such as they were, and even Whitehall’s own Government Offices for the Regions.
In this context it is worth reflecting on the role such bodies might have carried out in preventing and mitigating the effects of the pandemic. Providing Government with more local, granular knowledge of places would have been invaluable. Equally, greater familiarity with local powers, duties, capabilities and capacities may have prevented some of the cul-de-sacs that COVID-19 responses have driven themselves down.
Feedback through the conduits that such sub-national arrangements engender would have helped with knowledge, relationships and negotiations, in a way that the current arrangements do not – clinical commissioning groups, local enterprise partnerships and regional schools commissioners are but pale shadows of what went before.
It is impossible to effectively manage a pandemic from the centre of even a relatively small country like the UK. Most would also baulk at the idea of a totally local approach. I would urge that whenever we can get around to designing the ‘to be’, those designers spare a thought for the importance of a knowledgeable and wise intermediate layer that can mediate between the local and the national, that can cultivate successful relationships, and that can finesse the approaches of each to achieve the best possible outcomes, for local places and for the national interest.
Abdool Kara is executive leader for local services at the National Audit Office