Leaders in the North have spoken out in their resistance to the way that the Government has implemented its new localised framework of Covid-19 restrictions.
Yesterday Andy Burnham, the mayor of the Greater Manchester City-Region said he refused to let people in the North West be treated ‘as canaries in the coalmine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy’. ‘It’s wrong’ Burnham argued, ‘to place some of the poorest parts of England in a punishing lockdown without proper support’
Other leaders in the North West and North East, including the council leaders, mayors of the Liverpool City Region and the North of Tyne, as well as local MPs from both the Labour and Conservative parties, have expressed similar sentiments. With case numbers rising in cities such as Glasgow, it will be interesting to see what dynamic emerges between local leaders and the Scottish Government in Holyrood over the coming weeks.
The scale of resistance from leaders in the North is striking. It raises serious questions about the Government’s strategy going into the winter and a second wave of the pandemic. It highlights the chronic lack of understanding and dialogue between central and local government. This will have potentially disastrous effects for containing the virus. But it also raises some interesting issues about the developing role of mayors and leaders like Burnham, who have used their voice and their position with increasing impact over recent months.
Still no dialogue
The lack of dialogue between central and local government continues to hinder the response. Our recent report, Power Down to Level Up, argues that power must be realigned around local places, to build up the already impressive innovation that many councils are driving. We warned back in April, and consistently in our Post-Covid Councils work, that centralised management of our response to the virus and its fallout will not work. We’ve argued that the centre must discuss and make decisions with local leaders and local public health experts. They have clearly not done so, which is why we are at the current impasse.
Ministers have already attempted to shift the blame and accuse mayors like Burnham of seeking to augment their power. There have also been attempts to make this a party political division. But neither accusation stands up.
Firstly, there is a cross-party coalition of leaders and MPs speaking out against the Government. But more important, they are doing their job by standing up for the people they represent. By building a coalition that uses evidence and articulates a coherent narrative of how decision affect places, they actually demonstrate that they understand effective policy making better than the Government.
As this Institute for Government piece says, the Government’s scientific adviser Chris Whitty has stressed that local leaders would be crucial for bringing local people on board with new restrictions. But this does not seem to have translated into actual dialogue with those leaders, most of whom, even the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, say that the measures were not discussed with them. Even MPs in local areas affected by the new restrictions were left out of crucial online meetings that were set up to explain them.
Meanwhile, the evidence continues to mount up against the efficacy of an overly centralised approach. The NHS Test and Trace system contacted just 62.6% of people who tested positive for COVID-19 reached in the seven days to October 7, down from 68.6% the previous week. Local tracing teams, however, reached 97.7% in their areas.
The role of mayors
Elected mayors of English city-regions were introduced by George Osborne in 2015, predominantly to boost economic growth. Following Michael Heseltine and others, Osborne saw mayors as a “figureheads” and “doers” who would provide the focus and leadership to kickstart local enterprise and encourage inward investment.
But during the pandemic, and especially in recent weeks, we have seen how this role has evolved far beyond an economic one. Mayors have been important in the effective governance of pandemic responses as well as providing answers to social policy issues through, for example, strategies for tackling homelessness and rough sleeping. During my Phd research in Greater Manchester, a senior adviser at the Combined Authority told me that Burnham ‘believes very clearly in the role of cities as an economic force…and the power being with cities solving problems, rather than always relying on national government to solve problems.’
It is increasingly apparent that the role of elected mayor is also seen as a component of English governance more generally. As he voiced his resistance yesterday, Burnham tweeted that ‘cities should join forces’. Articulating the drastic impacts of a heightened lockdown on local communities, Burnham is a prominent spokesperson for people in his area, but also brings together a coalition of leaders and communities in the North. His question ‘How could we ever accept that?’ is one that is being asked by many who are not sufficiently represented or acknowledged by Whitehall.
The expansive role of local leaders, particularly mayors like Burnham, as representatives of local people, should be harnessed not resisted from the centre. We’ve argued previously for a Mayors Senate to incorporate this into a renewed constitutional settlement. It could help to plug a democratic gap in English governance, which also leads to poor policy making.
Approaches to localism
Finally, the resistance makes plain the tensions in party stances towards localism. As well as the party’s local leaders, Steve Reed, the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that Labour’s Covid response plan would be ‘local by default’. Yet Keir Starmer has called for a national ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown, to impose blanket restrictions across local areas, despite having spoken previously about engaging in a renewed and improved dialogue with local government. Andy Street in the West Midlands and plenty of other Conservative leaders decry their party’s centralising, insular approach to Covid management, as well as devolution more generally.
These tensions are not unresolvable. But they do show the serious problems that the UK state has with power hoarding at the centre. It is clearly very difficult to get over the presumption that it is better to manage events from Whitehall, particularly in a crisis.
Government has created a huge problem for itself by not working with mayors and local leaders to develop its new Covid management strategy. It has created the conditions whereby elected leaders had little choice to stand up for local people against the centre. This leads to an impasse, making it hard to implement policy at just the moment where it needs to be implemented quickly and effectively, leaving many communities in jeopardy.
But by standing up in the way they have this week, and in the preceding months, mayors have shown that they play an evolving and increasingly interesting role in English governance.