When it became apparent last week that the Prime Minister was going to announce new powers for local ‘lightning’ lockdowns, it was welcome news. Attempts to contain outbreaks of COVID-19 are going to take all the efforts local public health teams can muster, to track and trace and to stop the spread of the virus.
But drilling down into the detail of the announcement, the headline news that local government would get more powers – to shut specific premises, close outdoor spaces and to cancel events – but they were not as wide-ranging as they might have been.
The speed and agility with which local government can spring into action to dampen down local outbreaks is worth handing over some powers for. Fears of further scenes of packed beaches and overflowing pubs were enough to convince even the most centralising of Governments that there has to be an element of local control.
But this big announcement of new local powers wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. As soon as he had unveiled the limited powers for local councils Boris Johnson hastily added that local action ‘would not always be sufficient’.
Just to make sure, he announced new legislation to clarify ‘how central Government can intervene more effectively at a local level’. In a mastery of sleight of hand, Number 10 created a raft of headlines on the new powers handed down to local authorities when the reality is a centralists’ charter and the ability to fiddle with local lockdown.
Amid the limited local lockdown powers, central Government ministers will be able to ‘close whole sectors or types of premises in an area, introduce local stay at home orders, prevent people entering or leaving defined areas, reduce the maximum size of gatherings beyond national rules or restrict transport systems serving local areas’, Mr Johnson said.
In a week that has seen the health secretary bow to pressure and finally give councils the data they need for track and trace, how long will it be before central Government starts to notice that the best way to intervene at a local level is to give local government the tools to crack on?