The Prime Minister’s speech yesterday was intended to clarify his levelling up agenda and set out at least a sense of direction for how its aims might be achieved. It did neither.
He also said he will “rewrite the rulebook” on devolution. His offer of deals with counties was expanded on slightly by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick. The offer is there, apparently, for council leaders to approach government with their plans. The door is open, as long as it isn’t a call for more money, and there must be “leadership and accountability” arrangements in place. It must also involve efficiencies.
We’ve been down this road before. It sounds remarkably similar to the George Osborne era of devolution. Then as now, the Government claimed they were open to proposals, but clearly had a preconceived idea of what those proposals should and should not contain. Since then, there has been one deal with the West Yorkshire City Region. We will have to wait and see if the current moment leads to anything more substantial.
We’ve waited before, for a Devolution White Paper, which may have offered some sense of direction, but was delayed then scrapped. We’ve had a series of disconnected pots of funding that councils are able to bid for, from the Levelling Up fund to the Towns Fund (we’ve covered these in excellent LGIU members’ briefings here and here), but no sense of how these mesh together into an approach to regional governance. To add to the confusion, the Secretary of State has warned councils not to “draw up extensive proposals either for new deals of further powers.” So, it is questionable that they are seriously considering any real strategy that is built up from below either.
Fixing the country’s regional disparities is a very difficult task, which many previous governments have attempted. Mark Sandford’s recent paper for LGIU’s Local Democracy Research Centre discusses some of the mechanics involved in decentralising power. For those inclined to something more in depth, this paper from 2009 is still excellent.
The Prime Minister repeated the challenges that many of us are aware of, about inequalities between regions, the UK being one of the most centralised countries in the Western world, poor infrastructure and skills, frustrating growth and so on.
But the speech contained nothing of substance to address these problems, other than some cash to ensure that everyone lives within 15 minutes of a football pitch. The lack of strategy was particularly apparent when the PM discussed regional disparities in life expectancy: “Why do the people of Rutland live to such prodigious ages? Who knows – but they do.” Actually, we do. There are plenty of reasons for this, and some of them are contained elsewhere in the speech, but not in any coherent or strategic form.
We’ve set out previously the ten big areas that we think the Government desperately needs to address, including practical ideas for social care, housing, local economies, climate change adaptation, and children’s services. There are ideas and amazing examples of good practice to build on, but they require action, courage and strategy.
As well as his usual meandering stream of consciousness style and lack of detail, the Prime Minister is hamstrung, as many others before him, because he can’t or won’t accept that central, not local, government is the problem.
Local government has been innovating, pushing and struggling to provide decent services, boost local growth and wellbeing, and to support the most vulnerable during adverse circumstances. These circumstances include: ten years of centrally mandated budget cuts (up to forty per cent in some places); fragmented and disjointed policy from Whitehall (in which departments don’t seem to talk to each other even about crucial “levelling up” priorities like the Skills Bill); and, more recently the lack of guidance, leadership, listening, discussion or sharing of crucial information during the pandemic.
The common theme here is that central government has created problems and local leadership is trying to overcome them.
Though the Prime Minister did acknowledge that “for many decades we relentlessly crushed local leadership”, it is not clear that the centre-local relationship is likely to shift any time soon.