Scotland has its own devolved government. So does Wales. So, where does that leave England? And does it matter?
After all, who needs federalism and stronger local government when you’ve got the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak flashing the cash?
With stamp duty holidays, help to get young people into employment and support for the flagging hospitality industry announced today (8th July) it could be argued that the Chancellor’s mini-budget actually shows that it is centralised top-down Government that gets things done and makes a difference.
In the same vein you could say that it was strong, central Government that got homeless people off the streets and into accommodation for the first time in years with its instruction to get rough sleepers off the streets. Local authorities and charities helped deliver it, but it needed the central government mandate to make it happen.
A couple of weeks ago I took part in a Tortoise think-in held in association with the People’s Powerhouse called ‘After COVID: an opportunity for a federal England?’
Many of the members of the People’s Powerhouse movement such as We Share the Same Skies, IPPR North and CLES believe that regional inequalities have been massively exacerbated by over-centralisation, and that a more federal England – whatever that might look like - could help.
Most people taking part in the discussion were of the view that central government can’t hope to understand and meet the needs of people and communities in the same way as properly devolved institutions, power and resources can. They argue that moving bits of the civil service to places in the North isn’t real devolution, rather – as Arianna Giovannini from De Montfort University pointed out - "it’s just going back to the government offices of the 1990s that were disbanded."
So far during the COVID crisis the Government has been showing every sign of not trusting local authorities and institutions to do a better job than it can. The current row about access to health data is just one small example – with Andy Burnham making the case that Greater Manchester should have received all the region’s coronavirus test results to help inform decision making.
Added to that, as Lizzie Insall pointed out on the Tortoise ThinkIn ‘the funding is problematic – local authorities are having to raise local funds for nationally mandated directives.’
Local authorities have also been chronically underfunded for years. There’s a need to convince the centre that there’s a convincing argument for why it should let go of power – and the purse strings.
Does COVID provide it? Certainly not so far. But the view of people in the discussion is that change can happen – and happen quickly – but it needs someone to own it and drive it.
As Arianna Giovannini points out: “What we need is a culture change. If local leaders can’t find a response from the centre maybe they should team up with their local communities to put more pressure on the centre. Scotland was a long process – but what we’ve learned from Scotland is having people onboard can make a difference.”