Whitehall has made a farce of local government. Now is the time to devolve powers in a way that mattersby Paul Collier / October 22, 2020 / Leave a comment
“Deep rifts are tearing apart the fabric of our societies.” Those opening words of my book The Future of Capitalism seem sadly apposite. How have we got into a situation in which the evident common purpose of containing Covid-19 while not destroying our jobs has ended up being divisive? Why, instead of working together towards this readily understandable new goal, is the government of Manchester and its people currently pitted against our country’s government, recently elected with a large majority?
Britain has the most centralised government in the OECD. Whitehall has gathered powers and resources that in other countries are distributed around regional and local governments. Unfortunately, even with those powers and resources, it cannot possibly contain Covid and protect jobs. The goal is feasible—Denmark and New Zealand have done it. But the only approach that works is to win the willing compliance of the vast majority of the population. In Denmark and New Zealand, people understand that they need to behave responsibly, using their own judgment and sense of personal responsibility to protect their neighbours and colleagues from infection, while getting on with their work and their lives to the extent possible. In Britain, we have lost that willing compliance and that is why the struggle to contain coronavirus without destroying our jobs is going so badly. How was it lost?
The answer is simple: it is because over past decades Whitehall has made such an astounding mess of local governments. Not only have they got few powers and even fewer resources, but they are a labyrinth of overlap and fragmentation. Onto this has recently been added a top layer of Mayors of City-Region Authorities, of which Andy Burnham is one. Although these mayors have grand-sounding titles, they lack the clout to coordinate the many other governing entities in their region. All they have is voice, which is now heard alongside the national voices of government ministers.
This has produced the worst of all worlds. Instead of the two voices being fully aligned in building common purpose, they are inevitably being used to argue over who should take the blame for failure. What needs to change?…