Over-centralisation and the response to Covid-19

England would have managed its response to the Covid-19 epidemic better if our local government had been stronger, and encouraged to play a larger role. Liberal Democrats should now be arguing, even more vigorously than usual, that over-centralization leads to failure on the ground.

The first wave of testing centres was outsourced by the government, through a non-competitive contracting process, to one of our largest consultancy firms. The consultants’ understanding of regional and local geography was evidently limited, and their assumption that all health workers would have their own cars and would be willing to drive long distances for several hours was arrogant and wrong.

The Financial Times on May 1st carried a critical article on the sidelining of local Councils in the testing process so far, contrasting the decentralization of testing in Germany with the top-down approach in England – and noting that one Council, Salford, had set up its own testing station in cooperation with the local hospital trust out of frustration with the delays. Several other local authorities and NHS trusts have now also established testing hubs. But that should have been the approach from the beginning. Ros Scott made a powerful speech in the Lords last week on the government’s failure to allow a larger role for local leadership in organising testing centres and responding to the surge of volunteers. Others are now adding their voice to the criticism of centralised control hampering local coordination and initiative.

Instinctive distrust of local authorities and local democracy runs deep in the Conservative Party. Ministers starve local government of funds, while paying more for private outsourcers to provide public services. The Financial Times points out that Germany looked to a network of regional and local laboratories from the outset, and engaged local directors of public health in the national response. Here ministers started with one large central laboratory, added two more ‘and then took weeks to create a network of more than 40 drive-through testing centres.’. Procurement for personal protective equipment (PPE) was also top-down; local companies, and volunteer groups willing to cut and sew or use 3D printers to supply what was needed waited for long periods without the centre responding, before finding ways to work with local partners.

There’s been a regional imbalance in the government’s handling of the epidemic, as well. ‘The four national administrations’ is a phrase that trips off ministerial lips at Downing Street briefings; Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have representatives on COBRA, as does the Mayor of London, but information and comment from the rest of England is absent. Metropolitan mayors have spoken up in the media; the rest of England has been at the margins.

I hope that every Liberal Democrat local councillor will spell out the lessons to be drawn from this, and force their Conservative and Labour opposite numbers to pay attention. Local democracy in England has been weakened and shrunk, under successive governments, over several decades. That has left a wide gap between ordinary voters and political life, increasingly seen as a game that takes place in Westminster without links to local interests and needs. That’s bad for democracy: it has led to passive citizens, who feel excluded from the political game, and over-worked MPs spending much of their constituency time dealing with what should be local government issues. But the experience of the Covid-19 crisis shows that over-centralization is also inefficient and damaging. Germany’s federal and decentralised structure is one reason why their response has been more effective.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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13 Comments

  • It’s good to hear this from you, William, and you are right to stress the importance of having strong local authorities in the present crisis.

    No doubt you will remember from your time as a Trustee with the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust valuable research done by the the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. I well remember a report published by the Foundation in March 2015 :

    THE COST OF THE CUTS: THE IMPACT ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND POORER
    COMMUNITIES : (Annette Hastings, Nick Bailey, Glen Bramley, Maria Gannon and David Watkins of the Universities of Glasgow & Heriot-Watt).

    The report showed Local government to have suffered a faster rate of cuts than most
    other areas of government spending between 2010-15 (during the Coalition). Deep cuts were implemented, leading to a 27% reduction in the spending power of the sector in England between 2010/11 and 2014/15 compared with 11 per cent in Scotland. Authorities with greater concentrations of disadvantaged population groups suffered faster or deeper cuts, particularly those in urban areas.

    We can’t undo the past, but I do hope that lessons have been learned for the future, and that the Liberal Democrat Party of 2020 can renew links with JRF to inform future policy research – and with Professor Philip Alston on the issues of Poverty and Inequality in the UK.

    Strong properly funded local government is essential to tackle the present crisis, and with the issues of poverty and inequality.

  • William Wallace 4th May '20 - 11:13am

    David: You have a very long memory! The William Wallace who was a trustee of the JRF was a generation older than me, and had worked for Rowntrees for many years, as I recall; sadly, I never met him.

  • @ William. Well, I stand corrected, but I’m sure he was a great chap…… and I hope you can link up with them now.

  • Phil Beesley 4th May '20 - 11:59am

    Are you thinking about short term actions within current models of local/central government, William, or about a reformed, more devolved system?

    A few years ago, I observed that my local authority would care more about clearing snow from pavements if it had responsibility for health care consequences of accidents; others replied that their local councillors struggled to understand their existing (minimal) statutory obligations. Somehow UK society has to move on, rebuild skills networks of local government officials and councillors and take on new responsibilities. This is not just a Lib Dem thing because others share the belief in decentralisation.

  • Nigel Jones 5th May '20 - 9:38am

    Thanks William, a brilliant article. I sent a message about this to Ed Davey last week and I hope others will do the same. It should be part of our long-term campaign to fight for proper devolution of resources and also reform of local government as Phil Beesley has said. It is not about more government, but better government by removing some resources from Whitehall and improving the skills base of local government and local democracy.

  • Nigel Jones 5th May '20 - 9:44am

    I must add that our case for this devolution is very strong. Over the past 6 weeks I have watched experts on TV (especially BBC newsnight) say so often that our efforts to deal with the virus were hampered by lack of local skills, resources and governance; the latest was Professor Scally of Bristol University last week, who has past experience advising government, hence not simply an outside academic. So it is not only us saying this.

  • Stephen Booth 5th May '20 - 11:19am

    Could not agree more. Right at the outset our county council director of public health was saying that local council environmental health departments were ready to work with government on testing, tracking and tracing, something they already have experience in. By not doing this the “TTT” ended too soon as Public Health England and their (inappropriate) contractors were quickly overwhelmed.

  • Peter Martin 5th May '20 - 2:09pm

    @ LWW,

    “England would have managed its response to the Covid-19 epidemic better if our local government had been stronger, and encouraged to play a larger role.”

    Maybe. Maybe not.

    I would guess what you have in mind is a type of devolution to the English regions along the lines of what exists in Wales and Scotland.

    Is there any real evidence that the Welsh and Scots are doing significantly better? If there is, let’s see it.

  • “I hope that every Liberal Democrat local councillor will spell out the lessons….” Many of our councillors and other activists will have experienced instinctive unease from the government’s earliest responses to the crisis, sensing the inappropriate nature of the over-centralised reaction to events, but it falls to William Wallace to articulate with lucid clarity the wider implications and context. None of us wanted it to come this way but we have been given a very early lesson in what we shall be up against throughout the rest of the parliament. In individuals over-domination is often seen as one of the marks of an inferiority complex and I do not see it as too far fetched to see the danger of this administration rooted in a lack of self-confidence. There is a lack of mutual trust within the cabinet who need external enemies and scapegoats to sustain their own unity. As for the immediate issue about lack of trust in local authorities this goes back to the very beginning of serious local government which 19th century Tories fought against tooth and nail. From day one councils should have been seen as vital allies who could be trusted with much, much more than deciding whether or not to shut their refuse tips.

  • Nigel Jones 5th May '20 - 4:55pm

    Not sure it’s a fair comparison between England and the other UK nations; they are so much smaller. The experts I referred to above were talking about what was actually happening in England. For example, Public Health England unable to act quickly enough and trying to organise everything itself without enough local knowledge. As has now emerged, local directors of public health wrote to the Secretary of State about this over a month ago. Then the number of local environmental health officers has been cut so much that LAs lack sufficient people with the skills needed.

  • Gordon Lishman 6th May '20 - 10:22am

    COVID-19 is likely to increase central government control and undermine the legitimacy of local government to an even greater extent than now.
    Smaller councils – second-tier district councils in England – are facing bankruptcy because they are providing services to help their communities in the face of the pandemic. The support they are organising costs substantially more than any extra support they are receiving.
    Without significant further support from government, many of these councils will not be able to survive as independent, publicly-responsive service providers. That opens the door to further top-down reorganisation which will undermine respect and accountability even more than at present.
    It’s worth stressing that we and others have failed to build public support for strong local government with strong local roots, which is why central government can follow this path with electoral impunity.

  • “Smaller councils – second-tier district councils in England – are facing bankruptcy because they are providing services to help their communities in the face of the pandemic.”………. and some of the second tier District Councils in England are pretty crummy.

    The local government system in Scotland is much more representative and effective with Unitaries elected under PR. Not perfect, but much more clout…….. I’ve served on both. The 32 Scottish local authorities provide public services, including education, social care, waste management, libraries and planning. And none of the nonsense of all powerful Mayors.

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