An opportunity to rewrite local-central relations

By Heather Jameson | 17 November 2020
  • Heather Jameson

It has been a whirlwind couple of weeks on the international political stage. From the endless hours pressing refresh on US election news websites, to a cardboard box-carrying walk of defiance down Downing Street, the ‘populists’ have left the building.

Now it is time to click refresh on the Johnson Government – hopefully in time to get a Brexit deal done, re-emerge from lockdown 2.0 complete with a vaccine, and set the economy back on the road to recovery. With a bit of luck, and a great deal of spin, 2020 could be written off and all the blame cast at the feet of Dominic Cummings and COVID-19.

But what of local government? Will this mean an end to the tyranny of centralism that has hampered efforts to combat coronavirus? Are we done with the control-freak tendencies of the last few months that saw Whitehall reinvent the wheel to create an extortionate – and largely ineffective – track and trace system?

And what about the Blue Wall? Vote Leave may have marched quietly off into the sunset – as unlikely as that is – but where does that leave the PM’s promises of levelling up and devolving down?

So far, not so good. Mr Johnson’s dismissal of Scottish devolution as a ‘disaster’ this week may have owed more to the demise of the union than the actual devolution, but to the Northern Research Group it was a step in the wrong direction.

Mr Johnson may be a ‘huge supporter’ of devolution, so long as the amount of decentralisation is controlled by the centre. An oxymoron if ever there was one.

And while the civil service may be breathing a sigh of relief at the departure of its nemesis, Mr Cummings, with his plan to bully and berate Whitehall into modernisation, where does that leave plans to push departments out to the regions?

Putting central Government’s money – and mouth – in the heart of the regions is just one of many upsides to civil service reform.

As the Prime Minister hits refresh, this is the chance to create real devolution deals – to level up local economies and change the fate of communities. It is the opportunity to rewrite the relationship with local government – and stop writing-off devolution as a disaster.

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