England & Wales Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

Central-local government relations are becoming the principal site of conflict in the politics of the pandemic


In the latest of our Post-Covid Councils framework, this time looking at the location of power, Joseph Ward, Doctoral Researcher in POLSIS at the University of Birmingham, outlines how dealing with Covid-19 and the implementation of local lockdowns has shifted power in the central-local government relationship and how local and regional governments might intervene on behalf of their local communities.

As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic sets in, debate over who holds the power to implement further lockdown measures has intensified. The commitment of the UK government to avoid a second national lockdown has foregrounded this debate, with national politicians at loggerheads with their regional and local counterparts.

This episode has provided a stark revelation of the centralising tendencies of the Johnson government. Whether on parliament, wider public health measures or the role of devolved and local administrations, the assertion of power by Whitehall and the political centre is striking.

On parliament, the intervention of Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, to admonish the government’s use of secondary legislation in relation to coronavirus measures was the latest in a string of tussles between parliament and the executive. On health, moves to scrap Public Health England and the appointment of Dido Harding at the helm of a centralised Test and Trace system, as well as proposals to integrate social care into the NHS, have been heralded as examples of an overbearing executive.

The latter plans are particularly concerning for local government, with social care one of the key remaining functions and funding sources for local authorities across the country. As the pandemic has exacerbated what was already a dire financial situation for English councils, these reforms might become more appealing to local authorities seeking to balance the burden of social care costs in the midst of a public health crisis with the prospect of a further diminution of remit and relevance.

It is this central-local government relationship which is now emerging as the principal site of conflict in the politics of the pandemic, with Metro and City Mayors and local authorities becoming increasingly vocal about their lack of involvement in the development of local lockdown plans.

To an extent, centralised management in a crisis is understandable, particularly when considering necessary measures to keep a grip on a rapidly changing situation. However, the dangers of centralisation are particularly acute within the British context, as the piecemeal nature of reforms to devolved and local government over the last 25 years has left extensive political power with the executive in Whitehall.

Executive dominance has been a longstanding tenet of the British political system. As I argued in a recent article, it is possible to trace the current shift towards the centre back at least to the beginning of the May government, with Brexit implementation being the primary vehicle. Despite the lack of a parliamentary majority from 2017, May adapted Cabinet Committees and departmental structures around Brexit, strengthening the role of No. 10 across government.

These trends have accelerated under Johnson. Brexit initially continued to sit at the heart of this gravitation, with Michael Gove central to the coordination of No. 10’s agenda as Cabinet Office Minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. However, the overriding importance of the pandemic has provided an additional avenue for centralisation to take hold.

Specifically, on local government, further evidence of the premeditated nature of this strategy was provided by reports of the creeping influence of No. 10 over the London Mayoralty. Though one might be forgiven for forgetting that the prime minister’s inner circle extends beyond Dominic Cummings, those said to have their sights on City Hall also worked with Johnson in his time there, following him into Downing Street. This team includes No. 10’s head of policy, Munira Mirza, and the PM’s senior aide, Sir Edward Lister.

It is Lister, along with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has been charged with last-minute negotiations with local government representatives on local lockdown measures.

The frustrations expressed by leaders in North-West England on the nature and (dis)organisation of these talks demonstrates the impact of a centralised approach on morale in local government, with a general feeling that negotiations are a ‘tick-box exercise’ rather than a substantive consultation.

Moreover, even after agreement on additional financial support was finally reached for the Liverpool area, the joint statement of local leaders clarified that the decision was not theirs to make. Upon being informed that the region was to be placed into the highest ‘Tier 3’ category of the new restrictions, Mayors and Councillors were told that the ‘government would be doing this whether we engaged with them or not’.

Given the worrying spread of the virus throughout the country, if Whitehall continues to convene and implement local lockdowns in such a limited, last-minute fashion, the rancour of the last few weeks and, indeed, months, seems likely to grow as restrictions are applied elsewhere. Neither is this a matter of party-political opposition, with the Conservative Metro Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, also voicing his disagreement with, and exclusion from, the plans.

In a system in which there are few channels to hold the executive accountable, this raises the question of how local and regional government might seek to intervene to improve and tailor local lockdown measures to their communities. This is particularly difficult, given the extensive platform and means the centre has at its disposal.

One approach which the devolved administrations have considered recently with regard to the government’s Internal Market Bill is legal action. Such a process is, of course, difficult, drawn-out, and politically charged, with the government recently suggesting judicial review had been used to ‘conduct politics by another means’. However, the success of the prorogation case from the early stages of the Johnson administration suggests that it might compel the executive to take a more inclusive approach.

Furthermore, the threat of review might be sufficient to make the government reconsider. This possibility was mooted by the Metro Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, over the weekend after it was leaked to the press that further restrictions would be imposed on the region without attendant support. This provoked the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, into restarting the furlough scheme for areas which are placed in more strict local lockdowns, with certain businesses forced to close. Some within the hospitality sector appear to be proceeding with the challenge, in the face of more limited support than was previously provided.

However, this approach is likely to lead to further deterioration of relations between central and local government. Rather than constructive, consultative negotiations and a clarified process for local lockdowns which might have been developed over the summer, the prospect of legal action, across multiple levels of government, will intensify what are already well-entrenched divisions.

It seems that despite pledging in their manifesto last December that ‘the days of Whitehall knows best are over’, the government has decided to fully embrace such an institutional legacy. This mode of governing is by no means new to British politics. However, the current circumstances dictate that empowerment, as opposed to curtailment of those in regional and local government, would provide a more effective means of dealing with the multiple challenges presented by the Covid-19 crisis.

Joseph Ward, Doctoral Researcher in POLSIS at the University of Birmingham

Twitter: @JWard232



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