By Jack Horrigan
It is no easy task to match the majesty of Westminster. Sitting proudly along the Thames, stately and eminent, in the centre of the capital of European finance: it is the hub of the British body politic. But the magnetism of the Palace of Westminster seems to be weakening – and power is seeping to local councils.
The centrality of the British government is a well-weathered tradition. The United Kingdom has long been governed by a handful of MPs, gathered together in London, dictating policy for all four constituent countries within the UK. This policy of centralisation has, in some ways, made the government nimbler – decision-making processes take place in the House of Commons, rather than within the halls of myriad localities. Yet it has also rendered implementation of policies sclerotic. Now, after decades of neglect, Whitehall is attempting to resuscitate local government.
The UK’s system of devolution is remarkably byzantine. The four countries each have local councils subservient to their national parliaments; in turn, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland’s parliaments are subservient to Westminster. The powers of local governments within each country also differ. In short, the British web of jurisdiction is headache-inducing – and policy-makers can be easily entangled in it.
The primary concern is those councils in England and Northern Ireland. Holyrood and the Senedd have freely given its councils tax-and-spend powers, and many of the Scottish and Welsh councils operate autonomously. But both Westminster and the Northern Irish Assembly have dragged their feet, to the detriment of good policy.
Take the government’s response to COVID-19. The national government was tired and unwieldy; a centralised NHS was in no condition to adequately combat the tides of infection. Localities were swamped, and the NHS was too large to address the individual needs of every constituency. The result: an opaque system of doling out money that led to a shambolic initial reaction to the virus.
Certainly, other countries struggled. But they did not all hoard power so greedily. Take Germany, which immediately empowered its local governments to make their own lockdown regulations. The UK has had cumulatively more cases than Germany – despite having a population of roughly 16 million fewer people. A one-size-fits-all policy was ill-advised for a country of 56 million people such as England. The same strict regulations that may make sense in London would be stifling in Warwick. The UK did make an effort to localise a pandemic response, but the meetings between the premiers of the UK’s four constituent countries fell apart.
This may be attributed to two chief factors: dilapidated local councils nearly everywhere in the country, and a historical reluctance from Westminster to devolve power. The former is an easy prescription to make. As part of the austerity that obsessed lawmakers since the early 2010s, various public services have been axed. One of the dramatic cuts was in the Department for Communities and Local Government, which saw a large section of its budget evaporate, and with it, the budgets of various local councils. Indeed, since 2010, local governments have borne a 37% budget cut. Now, necessary services such as social-care, libraries, parks, and cleaning have been pared away by councils desperate to stay afloat. Councils only hope to balance their books is from joining in Westminster’s austerity; the UK is so centralised as to make it nearly impossible for localities to cover their debts by raising taxes. (The UK’s local councils collect the least money out of any other G7 country). Besides, tax hikes are perennially unpopular. Parliament, to its credit, recognised this. It planned for local councils to be largely self-reliant by 2020 – an admirable, if ambitious plan. Five years ago, the situation was dire; when 2020 came and the pandemic hit, local councils were quickly lost in the flood.
At the onset of the pandemic, many public services were shuttered. Theatres, public transit, libraries – all institutions that would ordinarily help to pay for themselves – were closed, or at least less patronised; meanwhile, all levels of government increased spending. The bailout Westminster introduced – a hefty sum of £3.2 billion – was still around £10 billion short of what was needed, according to James Jamieson, Chairman of the Local Government Association.
Under UK law, councils are required to either run a balanced budget or dip into their reserves. Once those are depleted, they must be bailed out or go bust. The central government has provided various stop-gap measures to keep local polities afloat, but it has not been enough.
The second factor – Westminster’s mulish resistance to ceding power – may be dissipating. The pledge to make local governments self-sufficient by 2020 was part of a long-term pledge by Conservative governments to devolve power from Whitehall. It was also a keystone of former PM David Cameron’s “Big Society” initiative. But those efforts had sputtered by the end of the decade. COVID-19 was the impetus needed. As the pandemic has continued, Parliament has loosened its grip on public policy measures. Devolution at all levels has actually become smoother since the onset of the pandemic, though it is still rather unwieldy. Indeed, the practice of the four UK countries deciding their own lockdown restrictions appears at first glance almost federal – Scotland’s response especially stressed an independence from Westminster. Local governments, too, are reaping the benefits. The government has promised to continue “levelling-up” local governments, even as pandemic restrictions ease. This is a wise endeavour. Local councils are, in most countries, the backbone of governance. They are the most visible representation of government, dealing with the issues most pertinent to everyday citizens’ lives. Local issues very often require local policies – Westminster should play backup, not dictator.
There are lessons to be learned from Britain’s continental neighbours. The UK has one of the richest traditions of democracy in Europe – but with that grand tradition comes an unwillingness to modernise. Local councils are commonplace throughout the world – and in most Western countries, they are much more empowered than their British cousins. Local councils are quicker to respond, more accountable, and as a result, more trusted. But that may not count for much. Prior to the pandemic, 85% of Britons agreed that local governments should have more say – but when this was put into real terms (i.e. taxation), 55% were opposed. The level of confidence in local councils has remained almost unchanged since November of 2019.
So, one must add a third factor to the reasons why local government is so feeble in England and Northern Ireland: public insouciance. Taxes are not the way to a voter’s heart – and granting localities more taxation power is seen as an affront to voters’ wallets. But this is a false perception. There are myriad benefits to more muscular local councils, including higher levels of employment and stronger local businesses. Any investment in local government would be well worth it for the economic boons alone. Both Westminster and local councils have advertised this, to little avail. They should let the results speak for themselves by transferring authority to municipalities now. In the meantime, Whitehall should continue to help subsidise local government’s budgets, especially to smooth out any disparities between rich communities and low-income ones. But localities should also be able to spend – and, in emergencies, fundraise – without fear of Westminster cutting off the tap.
It may prove a politically unpopular fight. Any reformers would have centuries of tradition to fight, and the inertia will not be easy to overcome. But it was a far greater flouting of tradition when power was devolved to Scotland and Wales in the 1990s, and one that ultimately benefited British governance. A similar battle should be fought now. The pandemic has made clear that Westminster is no island entire of itself: when the next domestic crisis comes, policymakers would be wise to remember that.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.