Whitehall sometimes knows best © ANDREW WALTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Be careful what you wish for when it comes to devolution

Everyone wants central government to have less power—except those who understand how government actually works
March 29, 2021

No politician dare praise centralisation when devolution sounds so deceptively democratic. In an era of multiple policy car crashes caused by Westminster—test and trace the most blatant—handing power to localities seems a simple solution. Why shouldn’t Manchester, Newcastle or Leeds take back control?

But progressives always point to councils they like, forgetting the mass of authorities that tax and spend as little as they can. Those councils favour middle-class crowd-pleasers, avoiding all but compulsory spending on vulnerable minorities—children with special educational needs, travellers, women seeking refuge. Some cling to grammar schools, damaging the unselected. When John Prescott removed the central ring-fence from around Sure Start, Conservative councils only created a bare minimum of children’s services. When the Cameron government gave public health to councils, some spent it on filling in potholes rather than tackling drug addiction, out of bogus concern for preventing road accidents. George Osborne “localised”  the Social Fund, crisis loans for families, and far less support is now available. 

As local elections loom, councils face the conundrum that half their spending goes to 2 per cent of their voters, unseen and unnoticed in child and adult social care. Most voters see only bin collections, street lighting, parks, leisure centres—and lower council taxes. Watch how most will vote on national not local

Many councils are perched on a precipice of bankruptcy, but the Tory-dominated Local Government Association does no more than bleat at the great 40 per cent Treasury cut in council grants since 2010. Town Hall leaders still put tribal party loyalty ahead of exposing what central government has done to them. So much for localism. The government has indeed been a radical devolver—but all it has devolved is the axe, slashing councils’ budgets so they can take the rap for Westminster cuts.

“Unpopular decisions are easier to make nationally”

The local government tax system is broken, with business rates wrecking high streets and council tax unpopular and regressive. But no new system can be truly local in such an unequal country, where lavish receipts from Kensington must be redistributed to tax-poor Blackpool.  

As local votes are cast on national lines, it makes sense for Westminster to ring-fence funding priorities. Unpopular decisions protecting the socially excluded are politically easier to make nationally. Besides, voters object to “postcode lotteries” in standards and services. And our one current national success is the vaccine, which was centrally procured and then delivered by an NHS which everyone blasts for being “top-down.”

Local accountability sounds great, but only an atypical handful participate. Of course many things are better done locally: what suits Doncaster doesn’t fit Dorset. But progressives promoting hyper-localism: be careful what you
wish for.