The midst of a crisis with no clear end in sight is, strangely, a good time to draw some initial lessons, and that is particularly true for local government’s role in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. While the weekly public applause was for the vital contribution of NHS frontline workers, local government has played a hugely important, if less well recognised, part in responding to the crisis. There are already some important lessons to draw on for when the Government returns to devolution.
As an effective strategic decision-maker, local government has had a major impact on responding to the crisis. Among many other things councils have taken the lead on local resilience forum co-ordinating multi-agency responses; organised and trained volunteers, identified and supported vulnerable people, delivered Government schemes, developed and delivered schemes to support local business and employment, as well as keeping the day-to-day running of local government and public services on track. Yet, the centralised nature of our system has restrained local government by lack of funds and for the want of freedoms and powers to act without Government approval. There have however, been some imaginative and effective uses of the general power of competence and such a power needs to be a major tool in responding to this and other crises, and in building devolution.
The lunacy of councils having to wait for central Government regulations before running virtual council meetings is a case in point. Local government knows how to keep local democracy and decision-making going; it knows how to run meetings, to engage the public, to consult and be open and transparent. But, it was potentially paralysed until central regulations appeared. In a mature democracy do we really need central Government to tell us how to run council meetings?
At this stage of the crisis we highlight six broad lessons to inform devolution which are straightforward because they build on what we already know:
- If local government is to play a wide-ranging community governance role, it must be financially free. The present system (established in the 1980s), where permitted expenditure by each local authority is capped by central Government (council tax capping) should end. The grant central Government distributes annually to councils should be included in its calculation of Total Managed Expenditure (TME), but not the total level of local government expenditure, which includes the revenue raised locally. The level of that element should be a matter for local authorities and their electorates.
- Central largesse is only one part of the process. Greater fiscal autonomy is needed and a far wider basket of local taxation powers, as is commonplace across Europe, will strengthen local government faced with crisis such as the COVID-19 outbreak. Fiscal autonomy makes finances more resilient and responsive with no need to wait for the centre. Greater fiscal autonomy, for example, would enable local government to more easily and readily develop financial packages to support local businesses and their employees and reinforce the Government’s own initiatives. Given local government’s closeness to its business communities, councils are able to respond more quickly than the centre.
- Devolution requires a new constitutional settlement, safeguarding local government from arbitrary interference by the centre and building on the General Power of Competence to provide local government with the freedom to respond to the needs of their area and not only in times of crises. The excessive imbalance between the governmental responsibilities at central and local levels needs to be redressed and devolution more than ever needs to focus on existing local government rather than more combined authorities – greater and more effective local government oversight of the NHS and its various manifestations, and over the police and their huge PCC areas, would be a start.
- Devolution requires a vision of local democracy which gives local government control, influence and engagement with the network of public and semi-public organisations which make up our fractured public service landscape. There is only so much that council leaders and mayors can achieve through pressure, cajoling, negotiation and encouragement: it is time to emphasise the ‘Government’ in local government and for existing local government to be given the same responsibilities and relationships across the public sector that are currently the preserve of combined authorities.
- The responses from local government to the COVID-19 outbreak need to be mapped, explored and an audit taken of new freedoms, powers and responsibilities needed for local government to prepare for the second wave, and to be able to govern our communities in more normal times.
- The steady (though disjointed) increase in the size of English local authorities from 1974 has moved local government further away from places with which people identify and where ‘community government’ is a reality. The establishment in 2021 of two new unitary authorities in Northamptonshire sees the end of local government based on real places with local authorities to match such as Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and Northampton – all replaced by two unrealistic entities as far as community identity is concerned: North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire. Devolution must re-establish the link between local communities and local authorities. Stop structural reorganisation as it is not a sliver-bullet to solve the centre’s perceived problems about local government, just let councils get on with working cooperatively – however best they see that operating. And stress the ‘local’ in local government.
To summarise our initial broad lessons for devolution from the COVID-19 outbreak: the centre does not know best; large organisations do not know best; a centralised system can be slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic when what is needed is a localised and nimble response; and local political leadership is a vital component of responding to crisis and directing the new normal. But, will the centre learn those lessons?
Colin Copus is professor emeritus of local politics at De Montfort University and visiting professor at Ghent University. Steve Leach is emeritus professor of local government at De Montfort University