NHS that involves and listens to local people is in all our interests

Cllr Ketan Sheth

Readers may be aware that the way in which the local NHS is run is likely to see big changes in the months ahead. Part of the NHS Long Term Plan is for local NHS bodies in each area to work in partnership with local councils as part of an ‘Integrated Care System’ (ICS). In North West London, this will mean a huge partnership across eight boroughs, including Brent – my Local borough. It may also mean a merger of the eight clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) across these areas into a single CCG for North West London (subject to a vote of GPs in each borough).

NHS leaders assure us that this is not a change to services, but to how their staff are organised. They say that any changes that are proposed under the new working arrangements will be subject to the same – or more – consultation and scrutiny. We need to hold them to this promise. The biggest concern for me, as a Brent councillor, is that the voice of Brent residents is not lost in a new system covering a huge geographical area (the North West London ICS and the single CCG would be the biggest in the country).

At a recent Joint Overview and Scrutiny Committee, we had the chance to question managers and GPs about the single CCG merger. There were certainly encouraging words about their future approach to involving local people in shaping health services. They have put in place a new programme, rather grandly called ‘EPIC’ (Engage, Participate, Involve, Collaborate), which they say is a direct response to the challenge of maintaining the voices of local residents in a much bigger system.

Working with local patient groups and Healthwatch organisations, they are co-producing an ‘Involvement Charter’ setting out how the public can get involved and setting standards we can hold them to. They have expressed a commitment to strengthening the current approach and involving more people, reaching deeper into our communities than ever before. They have promised to work with councillors and others to reach the most vulnerable and isolated people, who the NHS does not have a good track record of engaging. And alongside this ‘qualitative’ engagement, they have set up a 4,000-strong Citizens’ Panel, representative of local communities, allowing them to test public opinion through surveys and focus groups on a range of issues.

The programme is ambitious and no one could argue with its stated objectives. But as ever, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The NHS is facing big challenges right now, not least in getting services up and running again in the wake of Covid-19. Getting public engagement right is going to be more important than ever. If this programme really does see a step change in how the local NHS works with our residents – and most importantly, if it acts on what people tell them – it will have my support. My message to NHS colleagues is simple: the goals you have set out are welcome, but we will need swift and tangible evidence that things are really changing for the better. The National Health Service that involves and listens to local people is in all our interests.

 

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Cllr Ketan Sheth

Chair, Brent Council Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee

When Alice Paul came to Birmingham University

Chris Game

On August 18th, much of America celebrated the centenary of women finally gaining the vote, when Tennessee became the decisive 36th state to ratify the US Constitution’s 19th Amendment.

With some property-owning women in the Northern colonies having been voting before the United States was created – then having that right removed by the new all-male state legislatures – it took a long, sometimes bitter and unedifying, battle, but one absolutely worth commemorating.

Some perspective: that eventual 19th Amendment had been first introduced to Congress in 1878, seven years before one of the most militant and mostly admirable leaders of the final struggle was even born. I refer to Alice Paul, around whom PBS America’s excellent recent TV documentary, ‘The Vote’, was structured.

Paul was joint founder in 1916 of the National Woman’s Party – with her friend and equally radical contemporary, Lucy Burns – and its leader for decades. She/they instigated countless laws furthering women’s equality, secured equal rights guarantees in both the UN Charter and 1964 Civil Rights Act, and drafted the Equal Rights Amendment, which could theoretically have been the US Constitution’s 20th.

It doesn’t sound outlandish for a supposed democracy: equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the US or any state on account of sex.  Yet, introduced in 1923, it took 49 years for Congress to approve it, then a further 49 for Virginia to become, in January this year, the required 38th state to ratify it.

Now, in football parlance, it seems likely to be ruled ‘aaet’ – after ‘after extra time’ – a sad, if in no way diminishing, postscript to Alice Paul’s long and exceptional campaigning career.  Back quickly, then, to that career’s start, for her suffragette epiphany, her radical realisation, owed everything to her brief stay in her early twenties in Birmingham.  No, not the Alabama one. Our Birmingham.

Alice – no, I’m not at all sure she’d excuse the familiarity – came from New Jersey, near the Quaker state of Philadelphia. Bright eldest daughter of a successful businessman/gentleman farmer and college-educated mother, she was raised as a Hicksite Quaker – same Orthodox Quaker emphasis on simplicity, perseverance and social improvement, less on the Bible, much more on gender equality.

Despite, or possibly because of, a first degree in biology, she was increasingly attracted to applied social work. This prompted a Master’s thesis entitled ‘Towards Equality’, followed in 1907 by a one-year fellowship at the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre in Selly Oak.

Recently founded by George Cadbury as – still, I believe – Europe’s only Quaker study and training centre, Woodbrooke also had links almost from the outset with the University of Birmingham, and Alice would certainly at least have attended lectures there.

But here’s the tricky bit.  A summation of the numerous available accounts would be that the totally transformative event in Alice’s early life was attending a Women’s Suffrage meeting in Birmingham. There she heard the ‘charismatic’ Christabel Pankhurst – also still in her twenties – lucidly putting the case for militant action for women’s suffrage, and dealing simultaneously with a predominantly male, hostile, abusive audience. Following which – sometime, somewhere – Alice met Christabel personally and was, apparently, “converted, heart and soul” to the militant Suffragette cause.

But where exactly?  And, assuming it did happen, could that key personal meeting and Alice’s Pauline/Damascene conversion have taken place in the University of Birmingham, a retrospective highlight of its early Edgbaston years?

Most accounts, unsurprisingly, are vague, obviously embellished, or demonstrably inaccurate. One seemingly indisputable fact, though, is that Christabel Pankhurst and her mother, Emmeline, did speak and were heckled at a Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) meeting at Birmingham Town Hall on November 20th, 1907.

That had to be it, surely.  Besides, that is the occasion extensively described in former Boston Globe journalist Tina Cassidy’s recent full, if florid, Alice Paul biography – Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait?  – from the opening pages of which I apologise in advance for quoting at appallingly self-indulgent length, partly because it’s loosely evidential, but mainly because it’s such fun.

November 20, 1907 – Birmingham, England.  Alice Paul finished dinner with classmates at Woodbrooke [and] excused herself …  Gathering up her long, heavy skirt, she mounted a rented bike and began the four-mile pedal … through the fog to Town Hall in Birmingham.

Hundreds of people were inside.  Many were male students from the University of Birmingham, where Paul was taking classes. She was the first and only woman enrolled in the University’s Department of Commerce. She was fearless among them; unabashed, she strove for what she wanted.

Paul had come to listen to a mother-daughter team talk about their Votes for Women campaign. The men, however, had a different agenda …  Like most of their peers, they believed women belonged at home … and that these Pankhurst women needed to be silenced … they began to shake rattles, ring bells, and blow whistles and toy trumpets.

Unfazed by the chaos, Christabel Pankhurst stepped on to the stage with striking poise. She seemed effortlessly confident … the men, however, were not softened by her affect.  They roared for several minutes, waving their hats, sticks and handkerchiefs provocatively as she patiently endured.

“We have come to explain our tactics,” Christabel asserted, trying to pierce the pandemonium.  The crowd hushed briefly before someone hurled a dead mouse into the air, causing the hall to erupt into hysteria as the rodent was squeamishly caught and tossed like a hot potato.

Inspired and disturbed, Paul was riveted … until her senses were suddenly overwhelmed by the offensive odour of rotten eggs. Someone had released a hydrogen-sulfide (sic) stink bomb, creating an atmosphere so foul that the room emptied within seconds … Paul climbed back on her bicycle and returned to Woodbrooke.  She felt the electricity in her body. It was unlike anything she had felt before.”

Clearly no one-to-one meeting there.  But anyway, why would Christabel be chatting to, say, a university student seminar when venues like the Town Hall were available to her?

The answer, I tentatively suggest, is to be found in another quite recent American account – this time from Clark Edwards, a former graduate student at an Indiana liberal arts college, who, searching for a possible thesis topic, discovered his paternal grandmother had been appointed legal guardian of Alice Paul’s papers.  Nice one!

Among other ‘goodies’, Edwards reveals that Sir Oliver Lodge, distinguished physicist and Birmingham University’s first Chancellor, concerned by his students’ role in Christabel’s earlier hostile reception, invited her back – this time to the University – “to give a second speech, apologised and required all students to attend and listen.”

It’s not exactly unassailable evidence, but it satisfies me personally that the two young women did meet meaningfully at ‘my’ University, and that the encounter inspired or re-inspired Alice’s conversion to the Suffragettes’ militant campaign methods.

Delaying her planned return to the US, she joined the Pankhursts and became one of the most dedicated militants. She marched, protested, physically attacked leading politicians, smashed Parliamentary windows, got arrested (seven times), imprisoned (three times), sentenced to ‘hard labour’, went on hunger-strike, was forcibly fed through her nostrils (55 times) – all before even starting on amending the US Constitution. Exceptional woman!

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Exploring corruption risks in local government planning decisions

Teddy Marks, Transparency International UK

Anyone who’s lived near or been involved in a major planning application knows they are a magnet for controversy and tension. This is exactly why the decision to grant or reject permission is given to local representatives – to ensure there is some form of accountability. Yet recent examples have shown how planning decisions can go wrong. Even without the existence of wrongdoing, the perceptions of impropriety can undermine millions, if not billions, of pounds of investment in new homes.

A new report from Transparency International UK, Permission Accomplished, sought to find out why these scandals have happened and how lessons can be learnt. To do this we began by reviewing 13 major cases where alleged or proven impropriety by councillors had affected planning decisions across England. From this, we identified three key areas of risk and how local authorities could mitigate them. Most of the proposals are based on existing recommendations from the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Committee on Standards and Public Life (CSPL).

To see how local authorities were applying these in practice, we looked at the policies and procedures of 50 councils (representing 15 per cent of English planning authorities) and scored them against our recommended good practice standards. To make sure we were being fair and consistent, we developed a scoring matrix from 100 (meets good practice) to 0 (poor), and invited councils to comment on their draft findings and methodology. We also subjected the results to robust internal review and a standardisation process to ensure we assessed all councils equally.

Worryingly, not one council scored higher than 55, and the average score was 38 out of 100. Clearly, local authorities have a lot of room for improvement.

So what are the main corruption risks facing councillors in planning decisions, and how have well have councils addressed them? I’ve provided some highlights below.

 

Councillors’ engaging external stakeholders

Putting forward one’s view is not in and of itself a bad thing, and is an important part of the planning process. But lobbying behind closed doors and providing excessive gifts and hospitality to decision makers are real red flags. At best, this can present the view of councillors in hock with wealthy developers. At worst, they can suggest complicity in criminal conduct.

Both Transparency International UK and the LGA propose local authorities require all meetings between councillors and developers (and their representatives) for major developments to be minuted and available for public inspection. Yet just 44 per cent of councils in our sample required this, and only 12 per cent explicitly stated that they be published. We also both recommend there should be an official present in these meetings, but only 30 per cent do this.

As for gifts and hospitality, councillors must be prohibited from accepting any that risk undermining the integrity of the planning process. Only 26 per cent in our sample had any such ban.

 

Managing conflicts of interest

Conflicts of interest occur where a holder of public office is confronted with choosing between the duties and demands of their position, and their private interests. Councillors are elected to serve the public, but some companies employ existing and former councillors to help them get planning consent. When councillors are employed to do so whilst still in public office, it can create a direct tension between their civic duties and private interests.

In a brief search, we found 72 existing councillors across 50 local authorities who are, or used to be, employed by companies working in the housing and/or planning industry whilst they were holding public office. Currently, 32 of these councillors across 24 councils hold critical decision-making positions; for example, as members of a planning committee.

Although some councils stopped councillors from acting as agents, not one had explicitly prohibited them from lobbying on behalf of paying clients or providing paid advice on how to influence councils.

 

Regulating councillors’ conduct

Weak oversight, especially when combined with poor codes of conduct and decisions with lots of money at stake, almost encourages misconduct. Yet local authorities do not have the legal right to suspend or disqualify councillors for serious breaches of the councils’ codes – a robust measure recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) and available to councils in other parts of the UK.

Additionally, while the majority of councils in our sample had proactive standards committees to provide oversight on councillors’ ethical conduct, 22 per cent of local authorities either had inactive standards committees or they didn’t have one at all.

 

Moving forward

Most councillors serve their communities with integrity, but our findings show that the existing system is open to the perception, and also the reality, of abuse. To mitigate these risks and strengthen democracy, we provide ten detailed recommendations in our report, which can be summarised into three key themes:

  • Increase transparency over councillors’ engagement with developers and their representatives to prevent the perception or reality of undue influence.
  • Tighten rules governing the conduct of councillors to protect the planning process from abuse for personal gain.
  • Strengthen oversight over councillors’ conduct to deter behaviour that would bring the integrity of the planning process into question.

 

 

Transparency International is the UK’s leading independent anti-corruption organisation:  https://www.transparency.org.uk/

Teddy Marks, Research Officer

Teddy joined the UK Anti-Corruption Programme in January 2020. His work focuses on corruption risks in planning and housing decisions both at the national and local level. Previously, Teddy interned at Transparency International’s Defence and Security Programme after gaining professional experience in political risk. He holds a Masters in International Relations at the LSE, and a Bachelors in Politics and Quantitative Research Methods at Bristol University.

 

 

 

 

 

Can democratic renewal help us ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis? Key recommendations from the Newham Democracy and Civic Participation Commission

Elke Loeffler and Nick Pearce

Newham has seen one of the highest rates of COVID 19 mortality in England and Wales. Being one of the 10% most deprived areas in the UK (according to 2019 deprivation indices) the crisis has exposed wider social and economic inequalities – in health, housing, access to services and income – particularly for the Black and Minority Ethnic population.

At the same time, Newham has also seen a flowering of community support and creativity in response to the crisis. The local council has pioneered new ways of working with the voluntary and community sector. A new COVID-19 Health Champions network has been launched to empower thousands of Newham residents to remain up to date on the latest advice about COVID-19, and a new digital initiative  ‘Newham Unlocked Community Broadcasts’ showcases the creativity of local artists.

Newham is also one of a relatively small number local councils in the UK which have a directly elected Mayor. In 2018 Rohksana Fiaz took over from Sir Robin Wales, after his 23 years in the post, as London’s first directly-elected female mayor. In her election manifesto Fiaz promised to hold a referendum on the direct elected mayoral system before the end of her third year as Mayor (i.e. 2021), although the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will affect this timeline.

The Democracy and Civic Participation Commission

In this context the Mayor and the Council of Newham set up an independent Commission in autumn 2019 to examine both the Council’s current directly elected Mayor system of governance and the alternative approaches that exist in English local government, and to make recommendations on the best system of governance for Newham’s future, and to explore ways in which local residents can become more engaged and more fully involved in local decision-making and the Council’s work.

The Commission was led by Professor Nick Pearce. Extensive evidence gathering took place between November 2019 and February 2020.

A key concern of the six Commissioners was to make bold recommendations to reduce inequalities in public participation and bring citizen power into the Council to improve public services and the quality of life of local people. The COVID-19 crisis, which occurred during the latter stages of the Commission’s work, gave a dramatic glimpse of the huge potential resources in the community and the willingness of local people to make a contribution to improve the quality of life in their neighbourhood.

The “Newham Model” for more inclusive public participation

The resulting “Newham Model” aims to provide checks-and-balances to the way in which Newham is governed. It provides new participatory governance mechanisms. In particular, the Commission Report proposes the creation of a permanent Citizens’ Assembly, selected like a jury – the first of its kind in England. It suggests strengthening the accountability of the executive Mayor to local people and the main stakeholders of the Council, while also limiting the mandate of the executive Mayor to two terms, so that there is a frequent impulse for innovation and creative thinking at the centre of the Council.

Other key recommendations for strengthening public participation and co-production of public services and outcomes with local people are:

  • Extension of participatory budgeting – an increase in the resources allocated to areas or neighbourhoods for expenditure which is determined by local people from the current level of £25,000. The aim should be to spend a minimum of 20% of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) resources through neighbourhood or area-based participation.
  • A new framework for area-based decision-making – allowing powers to be drawn down to the most local level – along with the piloting of an ‘urban parish council’ in one of Newham’s communities.
  • A new “Mayor’s Office for Data, Discovery and Democracy” to provide expertise and leadership on the democratic use of data, digital tools for resident engagement, and learning from digital champions such as the government of Taiwan.
  • Wider use of co-production with residents and people accessing services, including area regeneration, which means that the local council needs to become much better at mapping what local people are doing, and want to do in the future.
  • Enabling local councillors to play the increasingly important role of ‘community connectors’, mobilising local people and their enthusiasms.
  • Support for an independent, community-owned local media organisation.

The Report of the Commission was launched on 6 July 2020 in a virtual public meeting, with presentations from the Commissioners, followed by responses by the Mayor and Vice-Mayor on behalf of the Council. Newham Council’s cabinet members will formally consider the commission’s report and recommendations at a later meeting.

Clearly, councils need to adapt the ‘Newham Model’ to fit their local circumstances, while simultaneously learning from democratic innovators in the UK and internationally.  Moreover, research institutions such as INLOGOV have an important role in sharing learning on new local governance models to help local government to ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 crisis.

 

Nick Pearce is Director of The Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath. He was formerly director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), as well as Head of the No 10 Downing St. Policy Unit between 2008 and 2010.

Elke Loeffler is a Senior Lecturer at Strathclyde University, and INLOGOV Associate. She is author of ‘Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes’ and co-editor of ‘Palgrave Handbook of Co-Production of Public Services and Outcomes’, both of which will be published in autumn 2020.

A year in the life of the newly-elected Independent Council

Councillor Paul Millar

Analysis by local government academic Chris Game shows that there were a total of 45 District Councils where no one political party/grouping could command a majority after the 2019 local elections. In the majority of these cases where the result was ‘No Overall Control’, rainbow coalitions were formed. East Devon provided a rare exception to this rule, and this article explores the struggles of running a minority administrations under a Leader-Cabinet system.

In May 2019, the political composition of East Devon District Council changed. The Conservatives had controlled the Council with a comfortable majority for over four decades.   When the Council was created in 1972, the Council was independent-run. Back then, there was a utopian vision of being a non-political Council. Though this convention remains at some town and parish Councils in the area, such as Sidmouth, it didn’t last for long at East Devon District. At the 1976 election, the majority of the Independents successfully ran as Conservatives and, the Council remained Conservative for the following 43 years.

Local elections in 2019 saw gains for independents across the country. East Devon was however a particular success story, with Independent candidates elected in all 31 seats they ran in – a 100% success rate. Most independents in East Devon campaigned on local issues, championing attention for their Wards. When I knocked on doors, while there were a few residents who wanted to rebel against the Conservatives because of the Brexit limbo in Parliament, many more expressed the sentiment that it was time for a change locally, with a general feeling that the East Devon Conservative Group had become complacent in office.

Despite these gains, it quickly became clear that some independent Councillors were too independent and unwilling to work together. A common vision of the strategic running of the Council could not be united around. Broadly, the 31 Independent Councillors were split into three distinct camps. The first comprised of broadly anti-development, anti-austerity Independents who believed the Council’s sole job was to deliver universal and high-quality public services. Many of these indepedents united around the ‘East Devon Alliance’ brand. This camp felt the Council had been let down by the Conservatives, and that inappropriate development schemes had been forced through at the expense of local living standards. This camp also believed that a stronger case made for the Council receiving greater financial support from government to deliver decent public services.

The second camp was mainly made up of broadly pro-development, neo-liberal minded independents who fully embraced the idea of the Council being run as a self-sufficient business, embracing high-risk borrowing for commercial investment, while happy to reduce and narrow the provision of public services which lose the Council money. This camp unsurprisingly contained independents who had previously represented the Conservatives. In my view, often they seemed to know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. In the third camp sat independents who were yet to find their political identities and had not been heavily involved in previous local debates. I was somewhere between the first and third camps.

Before 1998, Members were able to run as Independent Conservative, but the Registration of Political Parties Act specifies that political candidates who are not members of the Conservative Party but are otherwise identify with their policies and are wedded to their values, can no run under such a label. In East Devon, a few Conservatives had become Independents due to being unable to fulfil their ambitions within the local party, or personal or policy clashes within their local party associations, sometimes over local matters.

Councillor Ben Ingham was elected Leader of the Council last May and decided to run the Council as a minority of 20 Independents, cutting off 11 whose views he considered were “too left-wing” out of the administration. I, having only recently resigned my membership of the Labour Party as the party had become unmanageable under Jeremy Corbyn, accepted a position in Cllr Ingham’s Cabinet. A Conservative Chairman was elected, and generous offers of positions were made, which made me feel a tad uncomfortable. I recall being reassured at the time that the Chairman of the Council was not a political role. Later, his office became political as the Chair voted against an Annual meeting to have his position elected.

Slowly, it became clear that an overly cosy relationship with the Conservative Group which the electorate had just voted out, had been forged. My election leaflet promised change. After raising concerns with the business-as-usual approach, I was sacked from the Cabinet and I decided to quit the ruling Independent Group and sit as an unaffiliated independent.

Cllr Ingham has a long experience as a Councillor dating back to 1995, the first ten years as a Councillor as a Conservative.  He left the party after launching a leadership bid and ‘No Confidence’ vote against the Leader of the East Devon District Council Conservative Group at the time, Sara Randall-Johnson.

Running a minority Council under a Cabinet system is as unideal as it gets. Constitutional amendments and two Scrutiny Call-Ins on two key issues prevented the Cabinet from administering key policies to significantly increase car parking charges and complete a deeply unpopular and long-running regeneration project in one of its seaside towns. Under a Committee system, some consensus might have been found. By January of this year, the Independent Group lost another Member due to a Cabinet decision not to invest in saving a community hospital despite officer recommendations, East Devon District Council had the smallest number of Councillors in a ruling administration of any Council in the country, well under a third of the membership.

By March, the ruling group could not get any major policy approved by the membership and had started to fight among themselves. One Cabinet meeting descended into a row as the Leader appeared to lose trust in even his closest colleagues. Some independents, the Liberal Democrats and Greens came together in a rainbow alliance and formed a majority new administration last month, while the former Leader has returned to his spiritual home of theConservative Group.

With true colours having finally been shown, the new administration has the immediate task of crisis response. When the crisis ends, the new administration will plan to implement ambitious policies to increase democracy, transparency as well as prioritising climate change, poverty and the economic recovery from COVID-19, which is reflected in a new Cabinet and three new positions.

Councillor Paul Millar is an Independent Councillor at East Devon District Council, Portfolio Holder for Democracy & Transparency, who now sits in the Democratic Alliance coalition.

 

England’s over-centralisation isn’t just a governance issue now – it’s a public health emergency

Jessica Studdert

The concentration of power at Westminster and Whitehall has long frustrated those of us who engage closely with the structures of governance and compare it to decentralised norms across much of Europe. Now, as with so many facets of the Covid-19 crisis, the pandemic has exposed national vulnerabilities and left us grappling with the consequences. The grip on initiative that rests in SW1 is one such weakness, which is impacting how our system is responding to the virus, in turn perpetuating the public health emergency we find ourselves in.

A degree of national direction is clearly needed in the midst of a serious pandemic. People look to the Government for leadership and reassurance. Those in positions of power certainly feel personal responsibility for leading the response. Measures to implement service strategy nationally, such as through the NHS, or to use national heft for international procurement buying power, are certainly necessary. But time after time during the unfolding crisis, the centralised instinct has clouded decision-making, with terrible results.

The structures for the top-down approach to the pandemic were set early on, when the Government chose not to deploy the existing Civil Contingencies Act which set out clear roles, responsibilities and resources for all local and national public bodies. They instead rushed the Coronavirus Act through Parliament, which gave the Executive a greater level of unchecked power and no defined local role. This has had ongoing consequences for the coordination of an effective response. Leaked findings from an internal Whitehall review found that local emergency planning teams believe their abilities have been compromised by a controlling and uncommunicative approach from the central government machine, which persistently withholds data and intelligence.

The centralised response isn’t just structural, at times it has felt deeply instinctive. There has been a repeated preference for big, bold flashy schemes over smaller, sustained but potentially more impactful measures. In the early weeks of the crisis much media attention focussed on the new Nightingale hospitals, yet we are now seeing tragically how that time and resource could have been better invested in the more targeted shielding of hundreds of care homes. When faced with the need to quickly implement testing for Covid-19, the Secretary of State for Health reached for a high-profile 100,000 target and set up new large processing sites. This triumph of tactics over strategy directed the systemic response to focus on numbers over priority need and overlooked existing networks of local lab capacity. Even as attempts are made to set up contact tracing at scale to support the easing of lockdown restrictions, the Government seems to have more confidence in a new mobile app than it does existing local public health teams. This is despite the latter’s expertise in tracing the contacts of people who have highly infectious diseases and clear evidence from countries who have successfully managed their lockdown transition.

The formal power exercised at the centre is in direct contrast to the informal role for local authorities, which is having devastating consequences for their very viability. Because councils’ response has no statutory footing in the context of an emergency, they are left exposed to the whims of a few individuals making decisions in Westminster. At the start of the crisis, the Secretary of State for Local Government told local authorities to spend “whatever it takes” to protect their residents. Councils had immediately set about providing relief to shielded groups, protecting wider vulnerable groups and implementing public safety measures, all while ensuring essential services continued as usual. Rather than support these efforts, Government then rescinded this early clear backing, querying councils’ honesty over their cost assessments and leaving many facing a financial black hole.

The double standards central government imposes on its local counterparts is nowhere more apparent than when it comes to local government finance. An emergency on the scale of a global pandemic has required state-led responses on a scale inconceivable only months ago, and with widespread public approval. Central government spending has snowballed to accommodate unprecedented employee furlough schemes, emergency business support measures, not to mention the enormous costs to the NHS. The Chancellor has the leeway to respond to this through a number of different measures – incurring public debt, raising taxes, freezing public sector wages and reducing public spending, a combination of which he is reportedly considering.

Local government has no such room for fiscal manoeuvre. Councils are legally required to balance annual budgets and have only narrow revenue-raising powers through council tax and business rates which are themselves subject to centrally imposed controls. With a shock to their budgets of this scale they are at the mercy of decisions made by a few in Westminster. These have so far resulted in a couple of ad hoc cash injections of £1.6bn each, and a bit extra cobbled together earmarked for social care and rough sleepers – so far massively short of the estimated £10-13 billon shortfall councils collectively face.

It is no way to run a country. It never was, but in the context of the crisis the contradictions of our top-heavy system of governance are laid bare. The rumblings of discontent from Mayors in the north of England at their regions being side-lined, and from councils over plans to fully reopen schools in the absence of clear local test, track and trace infrastructure, suggest the popular tide is beginning to turn against blanket centrally-imposed measures. As local government is increasingly being seen as better placed to protect their residents, particularly in the context of a Government that is increasingly mis-stepping, there may now be an opportunity for a deeper discussion about how our country should be run in the interests of everyone.

Jessica Studdert is deputy director of the New Local Government Network (NLGN), a Londonbased think-tank. She leads NLGN’s thought leadership and research, and contributes strategic oversight of the organisation. Prior to joining NLGN, Jessica was political adviser to the Labour Group at the LGA. She led policy there, working closely on public service reform and devolution. Previously she worked in policy roles in the voluntary sector for a street homelessness and a childcare charity, and she began her career at the Fabian Society.