“Just about every aspect of our current national impasse proves that the old centralised game is up, and that England needs a new constitutional settlement. ……Power needs to be taken from the centre and dispersed: the future needs to be founded on a huge boost to councils’ share of the tax take, the devolution of everything from health to transport, and fully localised responses to any future emergencies. …..”
One recurrent spectacle has defined the last couple of months: ministers, presumably egged on by their advisers, grandly issuing their edicts, only for people to insist that they simply do not match the reality on the ground. The schools story is one example; another was the shambolic and arrogant way that Boris Johnson announced the shift from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, and his call for droves of people to return to work. Watching the leaders of Wales and Scotland insist they had no input into the government’s change of message and then stick to their existing lockdowns was a stark reminder that the UK is continuing to fragment. In England, meanwhile, the council leaders and mayors who were suddenly faced with huge consequences for transport and public health had been caught on the hop. “No one in government thought it important to tell the cities who’d have to cope,” said the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham. Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle city council, told me last week: “The first I knew about it was when I saw it on TV.”
For the opening phase of the crisis, Forbes explained, he had joined a weekly conference call of council leaders and chief executives, addressed by Robert Jenrick, the communities and local government secretary. He is not the only figure from local government who has told me that the calls are now handled by more junior ministers, and are no longer weekly. A few days ago, I spoke to another city leader who said that long-awaited government guidance on arrangements for social care and help for businesses had finally arrived last Friday, ahead of the bank holiday weekend. He also expressed huge frustration about the issue that arguably highlights the shortcomings of our top-down system most glaringly: the supposed arrival of a “world-beating” testing and tracing system by next Monday, and the ongoing saga of how it will work and who will run it.
On testing, rather than following the kind of devolved, pluralistic model that has worked so well in Germany, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has so far stuck to the usual centralised script, something exemplified by the drive-through testing centres contracted at speed to such private companies as Deloitte, Sodexo and Boots, and often situated in inappropriate locations. On its hobbling progress towards a system of contact tracing, the government at first followed much the same logic, attempting a centralised system of call centres involving such private companies as the outsourcing giant Serco, staffed by new recruits who had apparently been given the most cursory training.
The councils who have the kind of forensic local knowledge and experience any tracing efforts will depend on were at first left in the dark. Then, less than three weeks before the system was meant to be in place, it was announced that the chief executive of Leeds city council had been made “national lead on tracing”, and that councils and their public health directors were to have a role after all. Throughout last week, senior people in city and local government were still telling me that though this sounded positive, they had no clear idea of what they were going to be asked to do. But on Friday afternoon, the government announced that councils would be working with Whitehall “to support test and trace services in their local communities” and “develop tailored outbreak control plans”.
As one city leader told me, the announcement came at “one minute to midnight”. The £300m that was now allocated to English councils for the work was, he said, “completely pitiful”. The thinking at work was plain: seemingly in a fit of panic, the people who run cities, counties and boroughs had been belatedly tacked on to a plan that should have had them at its core all along. Perhaps the most painful thing was that this mistreatment was hardly a surprise: if councils are suddenly being praised by ministers, it hardly makes up for a decade of savage cuts to basic local services, an aspect of the Covid-19 crisis that is still overlooked.
Which brings us to the subject too often obscured by the government’s convulsions: money. Two weeks ago, the Yorkshire Post reported on the prospect of “many of the 22 local authorities in the Yorkshire and the Humber region making a choreographed joint declaration that they have run out of money”. In Newcastle, Forbes told me the city council now faced an in-year financial gap of £45.5m. When ministers and their cheerleaders announce this or that funding boost and insist there will be no return to austerity, it is worth bearing in mind that austerity is still an ongoing reality for large chunks of the country.
Just about every aspect of our current national impasse proves that the old centralised game is up, and that England needs a new constitutional settlement. This does not strike me as a left/right issue, unless you are the kind of Tory who thinks that the neglect and outright destruction of local government ought to be a necessary part of your politics. Power needs to be taken from the centre and dispersed: the future needs to be founded on a huge boost to councils’ share of the tax take, the devolution of everything from health to transport, and fully localised responses to any future emergencies. If we do not begin this revolution soon, we will carry on bumbling from one crisis to the next, as Whitehall and Westminster fall into more scandal and disgrace and the commands barked from on high continue to fade into white noise.