England & Wales, Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Democracy, devolution and governance

Connections, challenges and contradictions: the new policy agenda

Why do we always list the challenges faced by government and local government as distinct from each other? Perhaps because having to confront huge global issues like the climate emergency is challenging enough on its own. But it is I think simplistic.

Increasingly the big issues are interrelated. The challenges councils face on finance, inequalities between regions, places and individuals, Brexit, and the pressures on services can’t be seen in isolation.

And this is the case also – and perhaps more obviously, for the climate emergency. The climate crisis impacts most on the poorest, globally and in the UK. Some commentators have suggested that every council policy and action needs to be seen through the lens of the climate. This reminds me a little of equal opportunities in the 1990s. I’m not sure how much impact that had and whether it was often just a question of box ticking, but the concept is similar.

Of course just saying that the climate crisis needs to always be in the minds of policy makers doesn’t solve the major dilemmas councils face: to take two examples, supporting the expansion of a local airport would increase jobs but may not be compatible with its zero carbon plans or attracting more businesses may increase traffic congestion. Most local and combined authorities are committed to increasing economic growth but can this be reconciled to radical plans to reduce carbon emissions? And, of course, how can growth be made to work for everyone in our communities? Inclusive growth has become an aspiration in local government but what do we mean by it and how is it reflected in reality?

In England and Wales, ‘levelling-up’ looks like it has rapidly taken over from inclusive growth as the new buzzword. The UK government’s promised devolution white paper will form part of the stated aim to “level up opportunities in every region”. It does already seem clear that there will be increased infrastructure spending in the budget, some additional cash for front line services, and an attempt to even out regional imbalances. But how does this fit with the inclusive approach agenda? Will it reach down to local and community levels? And at the national scale, what will levelling up mean for Scotland and Wales, especially with the ending of the EU structural funds?

Another repeated theme is “giving communities more control” over decisions that affect them. A recent LGIU briefing, Enhanced Devolution and levelling up in 2020 and beyond, comments that “Again, it is not entirely clear what this means. Part of the equation may be about moving decision-making out of the Westminster/Whitehall bubble…However, to whom decision-making will move is uncertain. The Queen’s Speech says little/nothing new about strengthening the Devolved Administrations beyond seeking to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland”.

The Resolution Foundation’s recent report on the ‘Red Wall’ towns highlights that the parliamentary seats lost by Labour in the North and Midlands of England are not a homogenous block and treating them as if they are could end up with ineffective policy responses. Our briefing on the report concludes that policies aimed at levelling up the UK economy need to take account of this considerable variation and that this requires locally-sensitive interventions.

The continued pressures on local government spending do not seem to be factored in to the debate around levelling up or the uncertainties over regional funding once the Brexit transition is finished. How will any new trade deal impact across different areas?

Where is local government placed in relation to the UK government’s new policy agenda? Enhanced Devolution and levelling up in 2020 and beyond looks in some detail at the “Investment, Infrastructure and Devolution” chapter of the Queen’s Speech and especially what its themes of levelling up, community empowerment, and one-nation government might mean for local authority enhanced devolution and local growth ambitions. It suggests a strong case for council reviews and refreshes of key place-based strategies and how this might be progressed. It also recognises the need for local authorities to work collaboratively across boundaries, with partners, and as a sector if we are to influence the manner in which national government puts its reforms into practice.

Our recent long read, Prospects for devolution in the 2020s, considers devolution in the context of ‘levelling up’ and what role local government could or will play in the implementation of this aspiration.

There is potential for devolving real political and decision-making powers to councils as part of this process over this year and into the 2020s but there are still big questions that we won’t know the answers to for some time:

“We may start to see a new form of centre-local relations emerge through this year and into the 2020s, but the historical precedent suggests that any change will still be ad hoc and centrally driven. At the moment, without a clear and coherent strategy it seems likely that local government will again be forced to play catch-up with the demands of Whitehall.

“Councils do not know how their relationship with central government will pan out over this year and into the new decade. It is increasingly important for them to prepare themselves and to get organised, so that when the dial starts to shift, they are ready to make the most of the opportunities that emerge.”

Local government, as always, remains key to the government’s delivery of its emerging priorities. It is local government that can link these complex issues at the local level and can think through the contradictions and tensions they inevitably produce.

These issues are discussed in the latest edition of On Your Radar.

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