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16 September 2020

Justin Welby exposes a fundamental contradiction of Boris Johnson’s government

The Archbishop of Canterbury condemns an “addiction to centralisation”.

By Anoosh Chakelian

During the general election campaign last year, Boris Johnson made two promises to the public: to “get Brexit done” and to “level up” the UK.

At the same time as the government is mangling the former, the latter is also quietly unravelling.

As senior public figures weigh in against No 10’s attempt to undermine its own Withdrawal Agreement with the Internal Market Bill, very few have pointed out the second failing.

That’s why the intervention from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in the Daily Telegraph – usually a newspaper sympathetic to the Johnson administration – is more significant than it first appears.

In a comment piece co-written by Sarah Mullally, the Bishop of London, Welby condemns what he describes as an “addiction to centralisation”, and suggests “localism” (via everything from parishes to schools to local authorities) has been overlooked.

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“When it comes to Covid-19,” he writes, “the importance of local networks and communities becomes even greater.”

He writes that the “on-the-ground” response to the pandemic is most vital, with local communities, councils and churches playing “the most important delivery roles of all”.

In a thinly veiled criticism of central government, he says the “temptation to pull more decisions into the centre” in order to feel that “something is being done” should be “resisted”.

See also: “Whatever it takes”: Has the government broken its promises to local councils?

The underlying message of Welby’s piece is that local authorities and community agencies cannot afford to provide vital services. “Giving them generous funding would be a good investment,” he suggests. “Let’s place our trust in the local, and make sure it is resourced, trained, informed and empowered.”

At the heart of this problem is an ever-centralising No 10, which, for example, initially tried to keep its coronavirus testing regime run solely by Public Health England, failed to provide detailed coronavirus case data to local authorities, disbanded Public Health England to further centralise its functions, and even announced a centralisation of government department communications in July.

In the meantime, local resources have been squeezed. For example, councils promised reimbursement at the start of the crisis for all their extra Covid-19 spending have been betrayed, leaving them facing huge budget black holes and even bankruptcy. Robert Jenrick, who told local authorities in March that central government would do “whatever is necessary” to support them through the pandemic, warned in May that councils might be working under the “false impression that what they are doing is guaranteed to be funded by central government”.

The inconsistency, and the lack of funding, threaten services vital to fighting and recovering from coronavirus: public health provision, rough-sleeping programmes, local domestic-abuse support, and the maintenance of public parks are just a few examples.

See also: Ten years of data reveal how austerity weakened the UK’s pandemic response

The context of this is a past decade of austerity, during which every pound of central government grants to councils was cut by 60 pence.

Although Johnson has promised not to continue austerity, the position of poorly funded councils and the reliance of communities on the goodwill of volunteers suggests otherwise.

All this runs counter to the Tories’ beloved “levelling up” agenda. It’s worth returning to the actual definition of the phrase in the 2019 Conservative manifesto:

In his first months as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has set out an agenda for levelling up every part of the UK – not just investing in our great towns and cities, as well as rural and coastal areas, but giving them far more control of how that investment is made.

In the 21st century, we need to get away from the idea that ‘Whitehall knows best’ and that all growth must inevitably start in London. Because we as Conservatives believe you can and must trust people and communities to make the decisions that are right for them.

So far it appears this is yet another promise the Prime Minister will fail to keep.