Working to make government more effective


England’s patchwork quilt governance is not strong enough for a crisis like coronavirus

England’s ad hoc governance structures are too reliant on politicians muddling through

England’s ad hoc governance structures are too reliant on politicians muddling through. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the need for a change in mindset from central government, says Alex Thomas

As the response to the coronavirus pandemic has become more local and regional, nobody should be surprised that things have become confusing. There are complex differing remits and responsibilities in various parts of the country. Powers have been devolved and decentralised in a fragmented way. Gaps have been exposed between national and local policy responses. National politicians, city mayors, regional metro mayors, council leaders and other elected and unelected officials all claim to speak for different areas.

The row over funding support for Manchester’s move into tier 3 lockdown controls was foreshadowed by a dispute over the first local lockdown in Leicester and the powers and data available to local authorities. While there has been heroic work in many places, and genuine efforts to collaborate across Manchester and Merseyside in particular, the system as a whole is less than the sum of its individual parts.

A long history of partial reform makes governing more complex

Successive governments have recognised that our sub-national arrangements are a mess, but all recent attempts at significant reform have been stymied. Labour, in 1997, devolved power to Scotland and Wales and returned a cross-London elected authority, but elsewhere regional policies never took off. John Prescott’s plan to create a system of regional assemblies was seen off by – among others – Dominic Cummings, with a clear “no” vote in a 2004 referendum in the North East.

The coalition government talked about decentralisation and the big society but scrapped the regional offices which had created a route for local concerns to be reflected in central government. Cameron, Osborne and Clegg did manage to create a tranche of new city mayors, which are now proving the power of an elected mandate as they drive the debate and force action. But they had no coherent theory of devolution, with their reforms increasing the problem of fragmentation. That was compounded by specific “city deals” made with groups of local authorities creating bespoke funding arrangements and different power structures.

There are signs that Boris Johnson too will return to the question. A devolution white paper has been promised and there have been briefings about plans to abolish county and district councils. But announcements have been delayed, suggesting that radical reform – including getting rid of thousands of elected Conservative officials, just as the government shows signs of losing control of its backbenchers – might be a battle too far even for this desperado administration. It is common for governments to talk about decentralisation and giving up power but, when it comes to it, letting go is hard to do.

A centralised but fragmented system with little incentive to co-operate

The local and regional lockdowns highlight three structural problems in particular. The first is fragmented and partial decentralisation. One mayor has powers that another lacks. One location has a powerful elected spokesperson with a profile who knows that they will be held accountable, another area is ignored and overlooked. Central government can play divide and rule and local leaders in different areas rely on informal mechanisms to develop common positions. Diversity of representation is welcome as it reflects the views of different communities, but the existing approach exaggerates differences and incentivises fragmentation rather than seeking out common positions.

The second problem, clearly demonstrated by the government’s handling of regional covid restrictions, is that our governance structures are too reliant on the approach of individual politicians and their advisers. The government should have followed its decision to take a regional approach to lockdowns with clear rules for allocating money locally on top of national schemes. Ministers with more of an instinct for local administration might have anticipated these problems – and ministers should have been more prepared to listen to regional or local voices when the problems arose.

The third problem is that central government has not adapted to the logical consequences of devolved power in England. The chancellor held back Treasury announcements about business and worker support until after a lockdown deal with Manchester had collapsed. There has been minimal fiscal devolution with local authorities heavily reliant on central government for their funding. Policy teams in Whitehall tie strings to local authorities through legislation and guidance imposing further constraints.

There is an opportunity to change structures and culture

Fundamental reform is needed to resolve these problems, and the government should look at local and regional government as one part of its commitment to “level up” across the country. This could involve more coherent regional tiers of administration, a significant further expansion of mayors, including beyond city limits, or stripping away layers of local government. And the government needs to consider fiscal devolution too. For all the value of pooling resources in a crisis, real local accountability should include responsibility for raising as well as spending money. 

Even without wholesale change there are things the government can do. Creating a serious forum for debating and co-ordinating sub-national activity would help. It would need heavyweight ministerial engagement, including from the Treasury, with representation from the mayors and different tiers of local government. This should not be a superficial engagement exercise, like the Joint Ministerial Committees on devolution too often end up being, but a substantial agenda-setting group taking on specific “task and finish” style projects.

Boris Johnson himself, reacting to David Cameron’s plans for a “cabinet of mayors”, said in 2012 that mayors “are an organic expression of citizens’ wills in the cities they represent. They’re not there to be put round a table by central government and told what to do”. Johnson was right. Beyond structural reform, the most important change would be one of mindset from central government. Ministers need to think more seriously about localities and regions and develop their instincts for collaboration. That will not always mean agreement or harmony, but would lead to a more mature relationship between Westminster and the people it governs.

Prime ministers like to talk about decentralisation and reform, but dislike giving up power. The coronavirus pandemic might have created an opening for the reform that has eluded Boris Johnson’s predecessors – we do not yet know whether he is prepared to take advantage.

Related content

12 MAY 2020 Online event
12 May 2020

Coronavirus and UK devolution

Did coronavirus demonstrate the strength of devolution – or does it highlight the need for central government to take a strong lead?