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.

Local Government and the NHS Integrated Care System

Cllr Ketan Sheth

For those councillors in local government who scrutinise the NHS, it seems to have become an expectation that as one great change ends in our local health services, another begins.

A good few years ago in north-west London we saw the start of the Sustainability and Transformation Plans (later rebranded as Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships) or STPs as they were widely called. Now it seems another change is on the way. By April 2021 an Integrated Care System (ICS) will have been introduced, taking forward much of what was developed by the STPs. And, they are coming at a time of incredible change for the NHS and local government as a result of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with an ICS. If I had to summarise, I would say they are in essence bringing together health providers and commissioners, along with local government, to plan healthcare based on local population health needs in a defined geographical area. I’ve noticed the term ‘place’ features frequently in the NHS documentation and published reports. I should say as well, that the underpinning and thinking for them is all set out in the NHS Long Term Plan. In a few areas such as Greater Manchester, they started in 2018, and more have been set up to the point where around half of England’s population is now covered by an ICS.

As for my local proposed ICS, this will be cover around 2.3million residents across eight London boroughs in north-west London stretching from Westminster out to Hillingdon, with multiple providers, and community healthcare Trusts as well, and not to forget, the local authorities. At the moment, each borough has its own clinical commissioning group (CCG), but the plan is for one CCG to cover the whole area as well (but that development is best discussed at another time) across the eight boroughs.

So, what I want to address here is this – how does an elected member sitting on an overview and scrutiny start to grips with effectively reviewing and holding to account the development of a ‘system’ of such complexity, and in the constraints of the time and resources we all know elected members face? What should our starting principles be? It’s not easy to answer, but I have a few suggestions.

As an elected member, I don’t necessarily need to worry about being a ‘systems thinker’ but I do like to test the local ICS thinking constructively. I would perhaps ask this – thinking about the ordinary residents in my ward what will it deliver for them? What will an ICS do to make them and their families and children healthier, and be able to live longer and with a better quality of life? Ultimately, for me that’s what organisational systems in our public services should be about. Simply, a means to an end of delivering something better for ordinary people and our communities.

Also, while we talk about ‘systems’ in health services, let’s not forget that when we refer to hospitals in particular we are talking often about important local institutions which command a lot of local pride and attachment; not just because of the services they provide, but because of the outstanding research they do. Also, in my home borough of Brent, they are important local employers. I think this way of looking at the world from the grassroots should not be lost in these changes.

So that’s a few ways we can start to get to grips with such a big change, and complexity. Then it might be time to prepare for the next one, whatever that may be.

 

ketan

Cllr Ketan Sheth

Chair, Brent Council Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee

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.

 

The Ups and Downs of Robert Jenrick

Chris Game

When I joined INLOGOV in 1979, to launch its first undergraduate degree, I was, at best, passably fluent in spoken and written ‘academic’. As for ‘professional local government’, though, I’d barely have trusted myself to speak or write a decent-length paragraph.

Forty years on, thanks to the demanding but rewarding incentive for INLOGOV academic staff to become passably bilingual, I have the nerve to open this blog with the extreme generalisation that, in my personal experience and taken collectively, local government officers and councillors are a pretty fair, credit-where-it’s-due crowd.

Unfortunately, when it comes to those ministerially responsible for the sector, the past decade’s bunch just haven’t been that creditworthy.

Eric Pickles (2010-15) would openly attack local government, its personnel, and, as a former council leader himself, just couldn’t stop interfering in local issues – bin collections, council newspapers, spending on biscuits, anything.

Sajid Javid (2016-18) virtually flaunted his boredom with the latter part of what became a Housing and Local Government portfolio, then publicly blamed the whole sector for the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy, in seeking apparently to absolve his central government chums.

James Brokenshire (2018-19) had perhaps the best pedigree – son of Peter B, a council chief exec and Audit Commission director – and most instinctive positivity towards local government. Indeed, exactly a year ago he was advocating a revolutionary ‘New Deal’ between central and local government – for about five minutes until it disappeared down the gap between May and Johnson.

However, ask local government people for the best of the bunch, and my guess is that they’ll talk most warmly of Greg Clark (2015-16), who made clear both his interest in and commitment to decentralised government and, had the Treasury permitted, to serious devolution of powers from Whitehall.

There were others, of course, but none, I’d bet you, would seriously have even contemplated: (1) acting unlawfully and (2) overruling his own Government’s advice, in order simultaneously (3) to benefit financially a substantial funder of his own party, (4) to the immediate and substantial financial cost of an individual local council. Until Robert Jenrick.

Jenrick looked initially a typical Johnson-Cummings neophyte appointee: youngest Cabinet member, but at least feigning an interest in his assigned brief and an eagerness to learn.

That his sole ministerial experience was at the Treasury would have concerned some, and he seemed an unduly swift convert to unitaries and elected mayors for all. But, come February and having survived the PM’s two post-election cabinet reshuffles, he was doing OK, both the local finance settlement and his extension of councils’ audit deadlines receiving general approval. His personal Covid opened promisingly too, as an impressively early choice to front a Downing Street press briefing.

There followed a tricky patch with his lockdown travel confusions – doing ‘a Cummings’ (twice), thinking apparently that ‘stay at home’ meant interchangeably at any of his several domiciles.

Come mid-April, though, he was announcing an initially well received doubling of Government Covid funding to councils to £3.2 bn, and that “local government would have the resources they need to meet this challenge”. “Unwavering” backing to do “whatever is necessary”, echoed Local Government Minister, Luke Hall, to fellow MPs.

Except they wouldn’t. For within weeks the Minister changed his mind – or had it changed for him – telling MPs that the second £1.6 bn grant was to compensate councils for income losses as well as an unspecified list of direct Covid-related costs, and that, if they thought what they were doing was guaranteed funding by central government, well, forget it.

Bad – except compared with the next chapter. To summarise: Jenrick has publicly admitted “acting unlawfully” and showing “apparent bias” in overruling the Government’s own Planning Inspectorate’s advice and approving a highly controversial £1 bn redevelopment project, thereby saving, by 24 hours, a billionaire tycoon and major Conservative Party donor an estimated £30-50 million due as a Community Infrastructure Levy to Tower Hamlets Council.

Whereupon the beneficiary – businessman and newspaper/magazine publisher Richard Desmond – donated a further £12,000 to the party, a good day’s business satisfactorily concluded. Well, not quite. Rather than release relevant documentation, Jenrick allowed his own – though not ministerial – planning permission to be quashed.

[As a story that has unfolded quite quickly but in stages, there have been various accounts in the national and trade media. Rather than cite several, covering different sections of the story, I have picked one – not a natural choice, but one of the more recent and comprehensive]

The Conservative Party insists Government policy is not influenced by donations, and the PM insists that Jenrick “did the right thing”. However, he is currently the bookies’ 4/1 favourite to be the next Cabinet exit, overtaking long-time front runner, Priti Patel, and you could have got very much longer odds at any time over the past few months against anyone achieving that.

 

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.

 

Central Government, Evidence and Short-Term Strategies in the Support to Businesses and Local Economic Recovery in the Age of Covid

Tom Collinson

If there has been one mantra by which government policy has claimed to have lived by during the COVID-19 crisis, it is that it has been led by, guided by or that it is following the science. Intended to strike a reassuring tone, the claim to evidence was routinely emphasised by the government as either the Prime Minister or a deputy was flanked by a member of SAGE. When questioned on his previous disavowal of experts by Sky News at the beginning of the crisis, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, noted that these were economists he had referenced in the past, it was not established medical facts; suggesting that this time was different and that this science was different.

One article by the New York-based magazine The Atlantic even went so far as to claim that ‘Britain Just Got Pulled Back from the Edge’ as ‘the institutions and positions of state were…clicking into gear.’ While it appeared to be a rosy picture at the start, with the government publishing the scientific advice online, with a gesture that it would continue to do so, this tone quickly unravelled as the Guardian reported that non-scientists seemed to be advising government; there was no list of who exactly was in the SAGE group and why there were no (publicly available) minutes of the meetings and government advice was no longer transparent. Some of this has now changed.

All this has provoked an interesting question of the relationship between science, evidence and data-analysis with policy-making in the UK. How does one affect the other? Is it possible for one to distinguish between various forms of evidence in the policy-making process and make a judgement on which is the most appropriate? To distinguish between mathematical modelling, so-called evidence-based policy-making (that which traditionally elevates the role of Randomised Controlled Trials) and place-and-people contextualised policy? Is it possible to have what Kant called a constitutive judgement in public-policy? (I.e. a judgement which is not based on any further assumptions, hypothetical conditions or suppositions, such as values, narratives and aesthetics). For the past decade or so, there has been a growing literature on all of these questions and the urgency of the current pandemic has enlivened them.

These questions are of increasing interest to academics, journalists and opposition parties in the Anglosphere. With regards to the United Kingdom, the establishment of an ‘Independent SAGE group’ has been indicative of some dissent from the government’s claim to scientific unity.

For local government, these issues have taken on another interesting dimension, one that examines the relationship between governance and the collection and application of evidence in policy responses. In a report on the global picture of city-governments, the OECD has distinguished between two types of evidence-led responses. The first discusses local governments as instruments or ‘implementation vehicles of national measures such as confinement’. The second acknowledges the experimentation of ‘more bottom – up, innovative responses while… building on their unique proximity to citizens.’

Building on this insight, we can begin to describe a temporal framework, which provides further detail to the OECD’s report on the times when local government have been able to articulate their own evidence-based response and when the information and decision-making lies more in the hands of central government.

While it is still unclear where we are on the timescale of the virus or the response to it – which indeed make the articles in this post preliminary – this framework can be outlined on the basis of the short, medium and long term response to the epidemic. Such an approach is based on how councils themselves are articulating a response (using similar language such as the ‘rescue’, ‘recovery’, ‘rebuild’ or, ‘hammer’, ‘dance’ and ‘reconstruction’ as distinct phases in the plans).

Categorising policy responses in this way has a lot of precedent in the field of economics. With regards to the economics of a crisis, the same typology has been outlined by Professor Andy Pike, who’s presentation to the ‘Major Economic Shocks Workshop’ at the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth addresses the types of policy responses available with regards to the local economy, businesses, supply chains and labour markets in the three different time periods. The important point here is that in the short-term responses are direct, and contingent on the problem, whereas long-term responses are open-ended and rely on change. Short-term employment issues for example are addressed through subsistence allowances, while (re)training and entrepreneurship should be leveraged in the long-term. The same applies to supply chains; the short-term goal is to secure capacity and jobs through say refinancing, while in the long-term diversification and innovation is required.

Focussing on short-term strategies during the current epidemic and lockdown, the measures taken have exhibited the direct qualities that Pike addresses. However, these have often been delivered by way of decisions and information collected in the devolved governments and Downing Street. While there have been ongoing efforts by local authorities to assess immediate likely impacts – as seen in Cardiff and the West Midlands – the role of councils has largely been to act as something of a lightning rod (or courier, depending on how you judge their efficiencies) for UK government policies. While there has been some contestation around these matters from local councils, for example in the early closure of parks, the wide picture has been one of convergence throughout the country in a number of areas of practice, including areas of communication and awareness rising, social distancing, confinement and taking targeted measures to help vulnerable groups. In many cases, this has been guided by national government regulations and the ‘dos and donts’ policy responses, financial backing of £3.2bn to be awarded to councils in England to ensure a continuation of services, as well as some financial restrictions or ring-fencing.

The reliance on central government publications and financial backing has characterised the issue of supporting businesses and economic recovery too, where councils are in the front line for conducting policies made primarily in London but also Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. While there may be some differences between the England and the devolved assemblies – for example on the differences in the administration of business support in Wales and England, or the degree of discretion councils are exhibiting when it comes to business support, the general theme of subsistence pay to employees, business relief and grant funding through councils has taken the same shape throughout the country, as we can see from the following examples:

  • In England, the business relief announced by the Chancellor is being paid for by councils through the Small Business Grants Fund and the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund, and reimbursed to local authorities should the guidance published by the MHCLG be followed.
  • There is £6 billion in local authority payments of the Central Share of retained business rates that were due to be made over the next three months.
  • A £500 million Hardship Fund ‘of new grant funding to support economically vulnerable people and households in their local area’ administered through existing ‘local council tax support schemes’.
  • In Wales, the Welsh Government are offering a years relief on business rates to shops, leisure and hospitality businesses, and also offering small grants. Local councils are calculated to have distributed £508m to 41,000 businesses by the end of April.
  • In Scotland, Local Authorities are administering Small Business Support Grants as well as Retail, Hospitality, Leisure Support Grants of up to £10,000 and £25,000 respectively.
  • Similarly, in Northern Ireland a grant scheme of £25,000 for Retail, Hospitality, Tourism and Leisure has been offered, should the criteria outlined by the Northern Ireland Executive be followed.

In one of the foundational texts of modern political science, Alexis de Tocqueville describes the governance structure of the ancien regime, whereby all administrative corridors in French political life led back to the King. Intendants hired by a King to administer a province in-turn hired a sub-delegate to administer canons, where the happiness or misfortune of individuals depended entirely on ‘the whole operation of the central government’. The argument for arranging matters in this centralised manner was a financial one – to levy taxes in order to guarantee the State’s safety. But this ultimately led to the downfall of the regime itself. While I’m not comparing the UK Government to the House of Bourbon, modernity offers a number of examples where centralisation – justified because of finance and security – tends towards political and social disintegration. Further examination will do well to determine whether there is a different path forward in the long-run response to this crisis.

 

Tom is a postgraduate researcher with an MA in Political Thought and a BSc in Economics and Politics from the University of Exeter. His main research interests are in modern political thought, with particular expertise in the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, on whom he wrote his thesis, rethinking the concept of political participation and civic action in modernity. Tom is now researching the role of local and central government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, inspecting how they complement and contrast one another. He tweets at @tzcll.

The success of Police and Crime Commissioners in drug harm reduction in the West Midlands

Megan Jones

Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) were introduced in 2012, (2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act), representing one of the most radical changes to governance structures in England and Wales. PCCs are directly elected by the public and their statutory functions require them to (1) hold their own police force to account on behalf of the public, (2) set the policing priorities for the area through a police and crime plan and (3) appoint a Chief Constable.

They replace the former Police Authority committee style structure, which was criticised for their lack of visibility and accountability to the public and communities they were designed to serve. The emergence of PCCs was therefore a result of the failings of the previous governance mechanism and a political shift of focus from national to local governance.

In my research, I look at the impact that PCC governance has on drug policy, using the West Midlands police force area as a case study. Drugs policy, and specifically a harm reduction approach*, is just one area of policing and priorities that was used to explore the statutory role of PCC and more broadly, how the role can be interpreted or used wider than its statutory framework.

In August 2019, the latest drug-related death figures were announced by the ONS. They are now the highest on record, with 4,359 deaths in England and Wales recorded in 2018 (ONS, 2019). In the West Midlands, there is a drug-related death every 3 days (West Midlands PCC 2017a). Over 50% of serious and acquisitive crime is to fund an addiction and the cost to society is over £1.4 billion each year (West Midlands PCC 2017a). This topic often divides opinion and can be politicised. However, these debates rarely prevent the considerable damage caused by drugs to often very vulnerable people and wider society. The official national response is focused on enforcement of the law, criminalising individuals for drug possession.

By interviewing a number of key actors within the drug policy arena and as leaders in policing both within forces and PCC’s offices, I looked at how the PCC structure can enable a change in policy. This was combined with desk-based document study of public available document into the drugs policy approach taken in the West Midlands. Four key themes were explored: the statutory role of the PCC; the individual PCC; governance and public opinion; and the approach taken.

My results showed that the PCC role and this new form of civic leadership benefitted from: convening power and their ability to draw upon key partners from across the public sector, lived experience, and third sector. This is an informal mechanism of governance strengthened by public mandate. PCCs have the ability to prioritise by setting their strategic priorities in the police and crime plan. For example, in the West Midlands, the approach to drug policy has been narrowed to focus on high harm drugs (heroin and crack cocaine), thus ensuring ‘deliverability’. This means that limited resources available are more narrowly focused and can have a greater impact. The statutory role of a PCC allows work at pace and decisions to be made quickly, which means that trial and pilot new approaches and innovations.

Of course, there are limitations. PCCs vary across the country and often do not speak with one voice, particularly on drug policy. There are also huge advantages of a good working relationship between Chief Constable and PCC, demonstrated through the joint approach in the West Midlands.

Figure 1: Drivers to drug policy, derived from the findings

My research allowed me to concluded that three key drivers are optimum for delivery of a PCC-led harm reduction approach: using the levers at their disposal, such as the statutory functions, and informal governance mechanisms, such as convening power, which are able to provide the strategic and political coverage required to deliver at pace.

PCCs are unique in the landscape of UK governance and whilst weaknesses in mechanisms designed to reign in their power could be viewed as worrying, in the drug policy space this has allowed for the development of a new approach in the West Midlands, one that is evidence-based and has the ability to save lives, reduce costs and reduce crime.

The potential of PCCs is arguably still being explored, but their ability to test new approaches and work effectively with partners will be essential in other areas of policy, such as the response to serious violence and the potential for an increasing role across the criminal justice system.

PCCs have a number of levers at their disposal, and are able to use informal and formal governance mechanisms to foster real change at the local level and drive forward evidence-based policy.

Megan Jones is the Head of Policy for the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner and is a former INLOGOV student, studying on the MSc Public Management programme. She tweets at @MegJ4289.