23 April 2020

The coronavirus impact on decentralisation of power and local agency

Chair: Mr James Arroyo OBE

Ditchley’s virtual programme is designed to respond to the pandemic and the dramatic effects it is having on our lives. The programme considers the impact on our personal lives, our communities and changes in wider society. We start with a focus on individuals, communities, and, in this session, on how devolution of state power might be accelerated or held back. The programme will move on to a broader focus on the systems underpinning societies, from those we can shape such as the economy, to systems we depend upon, for example our climate. At the core of this programme is an ambition to understand the challenge and questions the pandemic raises for democratic societies. How can democracies respond?

The second discussion in the virtual programme series explored the impact of the coronavirus on decentralisation of power and the expression of local agency. It follows the recent conference Defining the Modern UK in which questions of decentralisation, devolution, ‘decluttering’ and agency – a sense of having power and being able to use it -  were thought critical for the future of the UK. ‘Decluttering’ was a term coined to describe the removal of unnecessary restrictions and bureaucracy to allow communities to carry out their own initiatives. 

Can the centre hold?

The UK remains a highly centralised power, despite much consensus over the desirability of various forms of decentralisation. Measures to extend (even marginal) decentralisation have been creeping along slowly. The forces holding it back are deep rooted. What impact will the government response to the coronavirus crisis have on the aims, attitudes and practicalities of devolving power? 

The government’s response so far seems to have entrenched centralised power (despite the slightly different tacks taken by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Is it inevitable? The mobilisation of the state in response to this crisis has been unprecedented. The enactment of economic support and the lockdown measures must surely be made at the central state level. But will central institutions be strengthened long-term, or is it just a matter of time before localised impatience pushes through and more devolved structures are created? At this point, decentralised countries like Germany appear to be responding better. 

The already decentralised system in Germany was thought likely to be strengthened. The Länder structure may be better placed to customise local state action and constitutes a legitimate basis for regionally attuned responses, especially as the early scientific consensus begins to fracture and clamour from business grows. 

In the UK, the rebuilding of local government already financially strapped will only be made worse by the widely expected corona-induced recession. It was noted, however, that those authorities already well adapted to digital services and asset-based practices – i.e. building on existing skills, experiences, strengths and resources within communities – have been better able to respond quickly to support local activity.  

The NHS – the key institution in the current crisis – was created from a pre-existing regional structure and has always reflected a tension between regional and national control. Will the NHS become the focus of increased support as a national institution or will there be greater recognition of the value of the more decentralised system that finally recognises the importance of social care in communities? The work of social care been given a rare spotlight. 

Determining the most effective unit of devolved governance and the most appropriate scale is a difficult challenge. And, will it ever be possible to re-organise the confusing mix of non-coterminous agencies, authorities and public bodies to respond to new centres of gravity linked to recognisable geographical areas such as those represented by Metro Mayors? Will the lockdown experience and lack of travel create a new focus on localities? The right unit for geographic solidarity was argued to be the neighbourhood, or areas with populations of between 5-10,000. 

Should the central government response be one of co-ordination rather than control and to direct issues to the right layer of state response? The fear from the political centre of taking the electoral blame for devolved decision-making is a huge barrier. Can it be overcome to create the space for people to take more control?

The challenges for ‘education’

The impact of the pandemic response on education and the university sector has been significant. Calls for government bailout to help the sector cope raise deeper questions about its future independence. The pressure isn’t just a macro one of survival of the university sector but will also be a challenge to the very core processes of teaching and learning. The move on-line has led to a questioning, by some, of what teaching means: one-to-one teaching, even on-line, holds more promise than the traditional lecture format. Whilst universities have struggled in their responses and obligations, the creativity of students and staff in finding new ways to connect and to learn has been inspiring and may well trigger lasting change. There was concern that government bailout would prop up higher education institutions that should not in any case continue. 

The success of German vocational training was attributed to the devolved governance structures and there is much to inform a new interest and demand for life-long learning that is expected to be a part of the transition, recovery and healing. Local and regional training in Germany is aligned with local markets, business and regional economic requirements. The overall result has been an impressive and enviable technical and vocational training sector. Decentralised training in Germany has consolidated an apprenticeship sector that the UK has so far failed to deliver.  

Power of communities

The response by communities to the current crisis has been, by all accounts, impressive. Local networks have sprung up at the neighbourhood and street level. But government language describing people (many of whom are active in their communities) in blanket terms as vulnerable was described as wrong and disempowering. The ease with which we have slipped, as consequence of the crisis, into labelling people as vulnerable was striking. 
Communities have come together in solidarity. Government, it was argued, cannot be helpful within these networks of local solidarity. Attempts by government agencies to intervene were seen as, at best risky and at worst, damaging. The massive response to the NHS call for volunteers untapped huge wellsprings of goodwill but has yet work out how to connect with demand. 

Accountability and communication

The disruption to political journalism and reporting with requirements of social distancing and lockdown has thrown into sharp relief previous practices of political reporting that were too reliant on presumptions of political balance. The usual political weighing scales don’t help in holding government to account. There is no spokesperson for the virus. There is no ‘balance’ to be had. The reconvening of Parliament was described as superficial. Divergence in the views and advice from scientific expertise is now undermining the initial reliance on ‘following the science’. The expectation that ‘experts’ are back may be short-lived. Instead science and scientists, are becoming shields behind which to hide political decision-making. There was a sense that the stage government has set for itself will only last for so long before people begin to decide for themselves.

The daily national briefing as the chosen method of communication projects the sense of national control. The slightly different approaches of Scotland and Wales are regarded as an irritation rather than a positive expression of decentralised power. As the crisis continues, will the government become trapped by its centralised response when the dynamics of the crisis are playing out differently in different parts of the country? Systems for sharing information from localities to centres of power do not work well. It is difficult to amplify what’s going on locally at the central level. MPs are seen to have little local power. Campaigning on local issues can conflict with an MP’s role at the central government level and the ambitious are wary of this.

Responses to crisis

The economic support provided by government is, at present, indiscriminate. Will governments inevitably get into processes of targeting and therefore deciding which businesses or institutions deserve to survive? The airline industry and universities are just two examples of where government bailouts may get in the way of natural obsolescence. 
The current relaxing of economic controls and rules over mergers is being taken advantage of without checks or scrutiny. The economic support and furlough schemes are being gamed.  The state is bailing out in areas that do not need the financial support. A backlash must be inevitable when the final bill is presented to the nation. How will governments make decisions in the near future about economic survival? 

The state response to the impacts of coronavirus has already extended far more broadly than the policy responses to the 2008 financial crash. This crisis is deep and broad, affecting layer after layer of economic and social systems. Our response must be equally broad and deep. Could this also offer some hope and opportunity? The rediscovery of community and solidarity is striking. How can we sustain and capitalise on this?

Participants: James Arroyo, Director of the Ditchley Foundation; Rafael Behr, political columnist and leader writer for the Guardian; Lise Butler Lecturer in Modern History at City, University of London, Nick Gardham, Founder CEO of Community Organisers; Liz Greenhalgh, Impact Lead, Ditchley Foundation; Catherine Howe, expert in digital innovation and democracy; Bobby Vedral, founder of the consultancy MacroEagle and UK representative of the German Economic Council. 

The text is a summary of the discussion. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.