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  1. Spotlight on Policy
17 June 2021

Why Whitehall doesn’t always know best

Levelling up can't be a top-down process. Westminster has to empower local authorities and realise centralised design and control will not work.

By James Jamieson

Never has the role of local authorities been more significant in people’s lives. Whether it be supporting vulnerable residents with emergency food deliveries, or providing grant support to local businesses, councils have faced up to the challenges presented by the pandemic.

The Local Government Association (LGA) and councils want to work closely with the government to help deliver on its commitment to level up powers and invest in areas across all parts of the UK. With the right funding and freedoms, councils will play a leading role in the country’s post-Covid recovery, driving improvements in public health, boosting local growth, reviving town and city centres, building homes, improving roads, and equipping people with the skills they need to succeed so no one is left behind.

A key lesson from the Covid-19 crisis is that centralised design and control of public services does not work nearly as well as allowing councils to innovate and deliver services locally. As we look to the future, we should end the emphasis on devolution deals designed by Whitehall and instead ensure that all councils can support new infrastructure investment, join up public services, and provide greater access to jobs and prosperity.

Our international competitors and partners have long demonstrated the positive impact devolution has on accountability, efficiency and growth. Councils want to work with the government to build back better and address the gap in local power and autonomy, so we can keep pace on the global stage.

Over the past ten years, the UK has taken some steps to give greater freedoms to local communities. However, as part of its commitment to level up the country, it is clear we need to go further and faster. Councils are uniquely placed to bring together businesses and drive economic growth and opportunities.

The Levelling Up White Paper presents an important opportunity to reset the relationship between central and local government and turbocharge an ambitious programme of devolution. This is supported by many in parliament, with exclusive LGA polling showing that 58 per cent of MPs and 80 per cent of peers agree that councils should be given greater powers and funding to drive employment and training schemes in their areas.

Councils stand ready to work with the government as an important partner in their ambition to build back better and level up. With the right tools, councils can help rebuild communities and address the challenges the country faces.

Cllr James Jamieson is chair of the Local Government Association.

This article originally appeared in a New Statesman-Salvation Army policy report.

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