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

Coronavirus and the risk of hypercentralisation after the crisis

In response to the coronavirus crisis the state is expanding enormously and playing a decisive interventionist role in society and the economy. This has big potential implications for the future. But with the focus on central government, the Prime Minister, Chancellor, NHS and even the army in coping with the crisis, we need to be wary of increasing centralisation after it has passed.

There are still a lot of unknowns about how long the Coronavirus crisis will continue, or what other major changes and announcements are in the pipeline as we struggle to keep people healthy and safe, while supporting communities.

Another big unknown is what the social and political landscape will look like in the post-Covid 19 world.

It is right to focus on the current crisis, and we at LGiU are doing just that, with info, briefings, bulletins, and live updates for local government which are free to access here. But it is also important to consider where we will find ourselves when we emerge on the other side.

There has already been a lot of speculation about what that brave new world might entail. The could be a profound turning point for politics, economics and society, it could realign geopolitical power relations, and some have predicted a fundamental challenge to the model of capitalism that we have grown used to. Others have warned that it is foolhardy to predict how things will turn out, as so much is unknown and unprecedented.

But what is clearly already happening is an expansion of the state at a rate and scale that was completely unimaginable in the political context of just a few weeks ago, as people look to government for solutions, leadership and advice. What implications this has for the future depends a great deal on the choices that we make from here on in.

The assumption by central government of extraordinary powers, while necessary to curb the pandemic, carry risks of authoritarianism if they are not managed and scrutinised. As Janet Sillett wrote for LGiU recently, democracy is still vital. But more than this, the crisis response has highlighted the bare facts of where power lies. In the UK, it largely sits in central government.

A great deal of the media focus is on the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the NHS and big central government policy directives. This is of course understandable, as that it has long been the orientation of our politics in the UK. After the Second World War, it was a highly centralised state that established the NHS, as well as huge housing, education and welfare programmes. The history of governance in the UK since then has largely been one of increasingly centralised control, with local government playing a subordinate role.

But there is another story to tell about the current crisis, which is about the vitality of local communities and local government, who have become an integral part of the response. Local place leadership is an essential ingredient of an effective response to the crisis and its aftermath. Councils are relied on to coordinate local action, mutual aid groups, and care for the isolated and vulnerable. They are also maintaining statutory services in the face of huge challenges in terms of demand, resources and stretched capacity. Only last week local authorities were required to find the extra means to ensure all rough sleepers are housed. Martin Swales, President of Solace UK said last week that councils are ‘rooted in their communities and these strong ties will be vital as we all pull together to respond to this crisis’. This will continue to be the case as we begin to recover and rebuild.

Just as there were spatial and social dimensions that emerged from previous crises, in the long-term changed patterns of living and working could be established over the next months and years. The plausibility and convenience of working at home, only in some industries, it must be stressed, has been demonstrated in recent weeks. If these changes take root, they will have profound implications for cities, towns and villages, and councils will need to adapt and respond to continue providing services, housing, care and democratic representation for local communities.

Local government is already adept at the innovation, flexibility and agility required to respond to demographic and social changes like this. Providing the right sort of housing, welfare, care infrastructure and local economic support, in local circumstances with precious few resources. There have been signs of decentralisation over the past few years, not least in devolution to English city-regions. Under the government’s previous agenda of levelling up the regions, we hoped that power might continue to decentralise, even if only piecemeal and ad hoc. Decentralisation was the right response before Covid-19, and it will continue to be the right response after it.

We sometimes talk about big, long-term, macro changes such as those which follow crises as though they have an inevitable will and logic of their one. Looking back at historical precedents it can seem as though developments happened they did in a smooth, linear narrative that seemed obvious to those living through them. But it is not necessarily the case.

We have to remember that human agency plays a part and that there are choices we can make collectively to help shape the future. There are many social and political patterns emerging throughout this current crisis that we should hold on to. Local action and decentralised coordination in response to a World-wide crisis has been crucial. We should not forget it.

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