England & Wales, Global Democracy, devolution and governance

Welcome to the twenties

Photo by HENCE THE BOOM on Unsplash

How different will 2020 be? Historians often talk about ‘long decades’, the idea that the defining trends of a given decade (unsurprisingly) escape the neat confines of the dates. So the ‘end of history’ 1990s finished on 11 Sept 2001, the ‘industrial unrest’ 1970s with the miners’ strike in 1984, or the Edwardian era of the 1910s with the cataclysm of the First World War in 1914.

As we enter a new decade with a new Government, it’s worth asking whether we are really seeing a radical break from what went before or whether we’re still stuck in the tail end of the 2010s. Certainly, the Government is keen to signal new intent. With a large majority to work with, Brexit to deliver and a new northern voter base to respond to, they are positioning themselves rhetorically as a radical new Government that will move fast and drive significant reform.

We see this telegraphed in the Queen’s Speech, in a constantly reiterated commitment to ‘levelling up’ and in a level of seriousness and discipline imposed on messaging, with cabinet ministers publicly warned off indulging in PR stunts.

Beyond the rhetoric there’s rather less detail about what this means in practice. Previous Governments that came to power with large majorities – Blair in 1997, Thatcher in 1979 – had well-rehearsed intellectual hinterlands and a policy programme developed over time and set out in manifestos (albeit that these didn’t necessarily survive contact with reality). This Government by contrast is keeping its cards close to its chest. The manifesto was tactically slim and if there is developed thinking on policy it’s not widely advertised.

Indeed, for local government, there is a certain groundhog day element. We’re promised the results of the Fair Funding Review in the spring, a social care Green Paper later this year and we are still waiting to find out about business rate retention. That feels very 2019. In fact, it feels very 2017. The same ministers and officials are in place. Where is the new thinking coming from?

I’m not sure however that we should be deceived by these apparent continuities. Things are set to be very different for two reasons.

First, there’s Brexit. We now know that this is going to happen. We don’t know what exactly it will look like but we can anticipate that it will involve a major reset of the UK economy and, for local government, potentially significant changes to the regulatory context in everything from procurement to environmental standards.

Second, this is a long-haul Government. With a majority this size it’s overwhelmingly probable that it will serve a full five-year term. That means it owns a whole set of problems. If nothing changes then local government finance, social care and children’s services will all fall over within the lifetime of this Government. If it hasn’t already, the Government will at some point realise that something must be done.

That means councils must be prepared for change that is sudden, rapid and unpredictable. It also means they need a vision and a narrative prepared so they can try and shape that change in areas where Government’s thinking is still developing.

We see signs of this already in hints that the Devolution White Paper will require significant amounts of local government reorganisation. Councils around the country are said to be preparing unitarisation or combined authority bids. They are right to do so.

In a volatile policy environment, councils will need to be very clear about their aspirations and plans if they are to retain any control of their own destinies.

So buckle up, it could be a bumpy ride. Come to think of it, in that sense maybe the 2020s won’t be so different after all…

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of the LGIU. This article first appeared in The MJ.

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