Why devolution resonates with the public

By Dr Arianna Giovannini and Professor Jonathan S Davies and Dr Jonathan Rose and Professor Edward Cartwright | 30 September 2020

Local government is playing a key role during the pandemic, providing essential services to local communities and safeguarding the most vulnerable. In this context, local authorities have shown incredible resilience despite a lack of resources and support from the centre. However, less is known about people’s perceptions of local authorities and their responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

Our survey sheds light on this; demonstrating that local government holds a ‘special place’ compared to other political institutions. However, our survey also points to the under-utilisation of local government during the pandemic as a trusted voice to communicate with the public.

Throughout the crisis, trust in elected officials at different levels varies considerably. In general, a majority of respondents show low levels of trust towards MPs and Government ministers – while local councillors are some of the most trusted politicians. Interestingly, this trend is in line with pre-pandemic surveys, reflecting a stronger baseline of support for the more local political officeholders. While trust in any political officeholder dramatically lags behind scientific experts and healthcare workers – suggesting an ongoing general uneasiness among the public about the trustworthiness of the political class – the support that local councillors enjoy relative to more distant MPs in Westminster is clear.

Looking at the effectiveness of COVID-19 responses, the survey revealed high levels of scepticism towards central Government. However, notwithstanding the higher level of trust that the public place in local councillors, they are still unsure about the effectiveness of councils during the pandemic.

We found roughly equal numbers of respondents who say local councils have been effective as say ineffective (23% v 20%), but the most common response is that people have a neutral view of their effectiveness (58%).

Similar levels of uncertainty emerged when people were asked how helpful they found the support offered by council leaders and local councillors in their ward.

Here, again, most respondents took neutral views. This compares with institutions like the NHS (85% effective, 12% neutral, 3% ineffective) and central Government (17% effective, 32% neutral, and 51% ineffective), where respondents seem to find it easier to be decisive one way or the other.

This neutrality could be read as uncertainty among the public about the role and leverage of local government during the crisis. While central Government and health sector representatives have taken centre stage, local leaders and mayors have been sidelined from the decision-making process around crucial national policy, despite their calls for a seat at the table.

Similarly, uncertainty around the helpfulness of local government during the crisis could be linked to its lack of power on key policy areas, which in turn limits its ability to act on things that are of crucial importance for local communities, such as COVID testing.

The centre-local disconnect that characterises our system of governance has become even starker during the COVID-19 crisis – however, the public do not regard this as the right way to shape the country’s path out of the pandemic.

When asked about what should change going forwards, many people want to see power devolved to a more local level: 42% of respondents saw this as a high priority, 41% a medium priority, and only 18% a low priority – while only 6% thought that giving more power to central Government was a high priority. Importantly, a clear majority of people also want additional funding for local councils as part of the effort to fight coronavirus (51%, v 6 % less funding), while only 10% wanted to see more investment in the central government.

In the context of ongoing debates about local government reorganisation and the now postponed Local Recovery and Devolution Bill, the results of the survey offer interesting insights. They indicate that sub-national government matters to people, and local leaders’ calls for a consistent system of devolution with more powers and funding handed to sub-national government bodies resonate with public attitudes.

An empowered local government could also help provide a trusted voice both during this crisis and going forwards, as it could harness local leadership and knowledge to meet local needs – bringing political decisions closer to the people and thus helping rebuild trust in politics from the ground up.

Dr Arianna Giovannini is deputy director of the Local Governance Research Centre (LGRC) and associate professor/reader in local politics and public policy at De Montfort University. Dr Jonathan Rose is an associate professor of politics at De Montfort University, and is a member of the LGRC. Edward Cartwright is Professor of Economics at De Montfort University and Director of the Institute for Applied Economics and Social Value. Professor Jonathan S Davies is the director for the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity at De Montfort University.

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