With the latest delay to the Government’s White Paper, devolution very much feels like it’s going the way of social care reform. Something successive governments continue to make grand statements and manifesto pledges on, but then fail to deliver in a meaningful way.
I make no secret that I’m an advocate for a more localised state. Since the Second World War, England has become one of the most centralised states in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a glaring example of the failures of this approach. It’s past time to reverse 70 years of creeping centralisation and instead give councils the policymaking and financial powers to enable a full local state.
Throughout the crisis, despite being on the frontline of supporting communities and businesses, councils have been hamstrung in their ability to respond. Local leaders have been outspoken about the lack of consultation on measures appropriate to their areas. We’ve seen myriad stories emerge about delays to data sharing from central government, limiting councils’ ability to understand local infection levels and support effective test and trace systems.
We have now reached a turning point where devolution to a true local state would not only achieve improved public service outcomes but could genuinely save lives. You only need look to our colleagues in Germany to demonstrate the impact of a local government system that can act without waiting for permission from the centre. Empowering councils would also support the long-term stimulation of local economies, providing a robust way for government to deliver on its pledge to ‘level up’ historically underserved areas of the country.
It’s time to stop the stalling and take bold steps towards a new system of government, where we consider not what should get devolved, but what little central government should reserve.
Rob Whiteman CBE is chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy