Politicians have spent years talking about moving power back to local communities. Vote Leave’s “Take Back Control” message, Labour’s Community Wealth Building agenda, this government’s “levelling up” initiative: all variations on the premise that power is too centralised and needs to be more fairly distributed.
Last year, the Institute for Public Policy Research said that UK power is more centralised than any other country, stating that just 1 per cent of GDP is spent by local government on economic affairs, half as much as is spent locally and regionally in France or Germany. In 2015, Sharon White, at the time Second Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, said the UK was “almost the most centralised developed country in the world”.
And now, as we face the greatest crisis this country has seen since the Second World War, the reality of a centralised Britain is hitting us. I’m proud that, following a Labour-led campaign for greater reassurances over local government funding, ministers have now announced further money to cover council costs. Robert Jenrick told councils at the start of this crisis to spend whatever it takes. We can’t afford to see any more back-sliding on that promise, or councils will be forced to cut back the exact services our residents are relying on.
But when the inevitable inquiry into the handling of the crisis comes, we’ll see that some of the biggest mistakes were to do with not trusting local communities enough, and central government trying to do things councils should be doing, and could do far better.
Councils were asked to offer support to those self-isolating but weren’t told who needed this support. Then councils were told the government would offer the support, but then councils were asked again. The government’s support for businesses was announced with much fanfare with the public told to contact their local council to access it. Yet, as councils, we weren’t told for over a week what we would be receiving, who should be getting it and how it should be administered.
However, while these errors meant support was slowed down, the mistakes that anger me the most are those that are putting nurses, doctors, care workers, public transport staff refuse collectors and many more, into so much danger. That is the complete and utter failure over testing and PPE.
Here in Islington, we have seen bus drivers sadly pass from Covid-19. Across London we have seen at least 26 TfL workers die from the virus and, across the country, countless frontline workers are losing their lives.
These are everyday heroes, putting their lives on the line to treat the sick, care for the vulnerable and keep vital services running throughout this crisis. The bare minimum they deserve is vital equipment to keep them safe and testing to tell them if they have the virus.
Reuters reported last week that after developing a test for the new virus by 10 January, health officials adopted a centralised approach to its deployment, initially assigning a single public laboratory to perform the tests with no wider plan envisaged to make use of hundreds of laboratories across the country that could have been recruited.
The government’s system for ordering PPE has again been centralised, slow and not up to scrutiny. We have seen British companies sending invaluable PPE overseas because they haven’t received orders from the government and promises about a plane full of equipment from Turkey that was nearly a week late.
A prime argument against this centralisation comes from our counterparts in Germany, who have adopted a much more federalised system of testing that uses its vast spread of labs around the country. As a result, Germany has carried out over 1.73 million coronavirus tests at a rate of 350,000 a week.
These errors come from a government obsessed with centralisation, a civil service that doesn’t have faith in local government and a Whitehall machine that thinks only it knows best.
I completely understand how difficult this situation is, none of us have ever seen anything of its like before. But if one lesson is to be learned from the UK’s response, it is that government must trust in local communities, local government and local organisations.
Richard Watts is the Labour leader of Islington Council