The brave new dawn of the Coalition Government in 2010 might have meant some mushy consensus. It might have ensured that Parliamentary arithmetic required compromise to triumph over radicalism. Some might even have felt this was inevitable. Yet it was rather impressive how bold the reforms David Cameron managed to achieve during that time – notably in education and welfare. One approach that the Conservative and Lib Dems agreed on was localism – an end to the New Labour centralised control freakery of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years, where town halls were given such detailed targets and instructions that local democracy ceased to amount to much in terms of practical difference.
Nick Clegg, when he was the Deputy Prime Minister, rightly declared:
“Opponents of localism brandish the phrase “postcode lottery” to dramatize differences in provision between areas. But it is not a lottery when decisions about provision are made by people who can be held to democratic account. That is not a postcode lottery — it is a postcode democracy”
I don’t think that Theresa May was of the same Cameron/Clegg mindset. Nor, to be fair, did local democracy always rise to the challenge. In any event, localism seemed to go out of fashion. Until now. The abject failures of the centralised track and trace efforts have been set out on this site by Charlotte Gill. The usual Labour response is to demand that more money be spent – but already £10 billion has been thrown at it, which already seems rather a lot. It is no surprise that many are now wondering whether local authorities could do any worse.
The Sunday Times reported yesterday:
“Mayors will be given more control over the coronavirus test-and-trace system as ministers try to secure their support for tough new local lockdown rules. In an admission that the national system is failing, ministers will empower town hall bosses to deploy an army of new local volunteers to knock on doors and ask people to self-isolate. With Covid-19 running rampant, they want local people to take charge of controlling the spread of the virus in the hope it will generate “community spirit” and “improve compliance”…Ministers have spent months pinning their hopes on the NHS Test and Trace system, which has cost £10bn. But the national system of call centres is failing to trace many of those at risk. Local contact tracing has been trialled for several weeks in more than 60 council areas. Public health officials tap into the national database and pick up “difficult cases” where people cannot be traced. A source said: “We want to extend that.” Local authorities will also be given greater control over mobile testing units and walk-in centres.”
On Wednesday I wrote about the Government facing growing backchat from prominent Labour figures in local goverment. But the Sunday Times report adds that Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands, has said localised test-and-trace programmes piloted by councils in his region had been successful, with between 98 per cent and 100 per cent of cases identified – so he would resist his region having a new lockdown imposed. He adds:
“It has always been clear that there was a need for local capacity and our councils have done it very well, and there are now thousands of people being contacted by council staff and related agencies on the ground.”
Then yesterday Cllr David Greenhalgh, the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, took the airwaves to ask:
“I’m urging the Government to listen again…We can not throw our local economy to the wall….There has to be an exit package about we get ourselves out of these restrictions….Why should the north of England be treated any differently?”
Though public opinion is supportive of tough coronavirus restrictions, the resistance to being told what to do by “people in London” is becoming more outspoken – among Conservative, as well as Labour, MPs. In a House of Commons debate last week, Jake Berry, the Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen, warned:
“I think the Government have fallen into the fatal trap of making national decisions based on a London-centric view with London data. I hope that the Minister will go away and reflect on that, and take the opportunity to take a new approach.”
Dehenna Davison, the Conservative MP for Bishop Auckland said:
“If localised measures are to become the norm, will it be possible to have data analysed on a more localised level, allowing areas with minimal cases, where local residents are working hard to follow the guidance, to enjoy more freedom? After all, we are the party of freedom.”
Richard Holden, the Conservative MP for North West Durham, added:
“We all understand that localised restrictions are better than national ones, especially when there are particular spikes in local areas, but there are variations within our communities as well. Weardale in my constituency has far fewer cases than much of the rest of my constituency, so it would be great to see some really localised data and some really localised regulations.”
There is a strong case that the national lockdown was a crude approach and that better targeting – both geographically and demographically – would have been more effective and less harmful. National rules have the advantage of simplicity and clarity – Ministers are less likely to be caught out during interviews; remembering all the local variations is tricky. Yet the logic of containing the spread, while keeping the cost to a minimum, would require a hyper-localised approach. Not regional. Or even by local authority. Holden is right to speak up for Weardale even if elsewhere in Durham the argument against further restrictions is less strong.
The more the case for such nuances is conceded, the weaker is the claim the man in Whitehall knows best. There are limits to what can be done. The NHS – despite its popularity – is a slumbering monolith with an inflexibility which may well explain why most other countries have achieved a lower death rate from the pandemic than we have. The health service can not be restructured in a few days. Still, an enhanced role for local autonomy would surely have a positive role to play. Better late than never.