The COVID crisis has heightened our sense of solidarity both at a national level and within our own local communities. At the start, it was broadly accepted that national policy was the right instrument to address the short-term health and economic challenges facing the whole country. But this is far from the case now. Fault lines have opened between the main parties in Westminster and local leaders while calls for greater devolution are building to a crescendo.
The pandemic has exacerbated the social and economic differences between places, compounded pre-crisis inequalities and exposed the limits of Whitehall in designing and delivering localised policy from the centre. As the regions and devolved nations of the UK try to grapple with the second wave, the efforts of the UK government are slipping further into disarray. Local leaders are increasingly being consulted, but only – as Liverpool’s Mayor Joe Anderson noted – once decisions have already been made.
The practical incentives for involving local government in immediate COVID-related decisions is now clear, and the political fallout for failing to do is becoming increasingly apparent. But this could signal the start of a new, more collaborative and joined up way of governing – one that helps the Government deliver on its longer-term promise to ‘level up’ the UK.
The significant productivity discrepancies across the UK mean that, to level up, the Government will need to allow a targeted and tailored approach. Research by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) shows regional disparities can no longer be characterised as ‘London vs The Rest’. Inequality within regions is rife across the UK, with broad regional trends often disguising local imbalances. In addition, the reasons why one area is more productive than another are different in different places – from poor health in some places, to low skills or education standards in others.
The prize for delivering on this agenda is significant. CPP research shows that successfully levelling up would add £242bn to the economy each year. But it is not yet clear how No.10 intends to deliver on its ambition. Meanwhile, local government leaders who are closest to their communities already know the obstacles to success and can identify the opportunities to build back better. CPP’s Inclusive Growth Network is testament to the work being done to develop innovative local solutions to some of our most complex economic and social policy challenges.
However, local government needs more resource, greater decision making powers and increased clarity about how different tiers of government can work together effectively – to tackle COVID-19 and lay the foundations for inclusive recovery and growth over the longer term. The Greater Manchester health and social care model offers a basis for a wider levelling up plan. All mayors of regional combined authorities should have total flexibility in how they invest their public sector budgets, pooled across not just health and social care, but adult skills, employment support, early years and beyond. This will allow for a more surgical approach that could not be replicated by a centralised team in Whitehall and Westminster.
With greater devolution must also come greater accountability. Rolling out mayoral combined authorities across England will help address those ‘within region’ discrepancies, but it must be accompanied with agreed outcomes for which local leaders can be held to account. Similarly, we’re calling for a National Mayoral Council to give regional mayors a formal voice in national policy and investment decision making – whether for large-scale infrastructure projects or welfare policy. Together with a regional public accounts committee we can start to build the institutions needed, centrally and locally, to achieve clearer accountability and better economic and social outcomes.
Government has parked answering these essential questions until the new year. The long-anticipated Devolution and Local Recovery White Paper has been postponed, suggesting Number 10 is not yet sure of the role local government and leadership should play in delivering on levelling up. Recent challenges we’ve faced should help us navigate profound questions about the future of where we live and work and how we are governed. Taking advantage of greater local and regional leadership to deliver both a more effective COVID response and to level up feels more compelling by the day.
Zoë Billingham is head of policy and engagement, and Charlotte Alldritt is director of the Centre for Progressive Policy