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Mile End Institute

'Talking a Good Game': Levelling Up and Localism in England

Following the publication of the Government's Levelling Up White Paper this week, Dr Patrick Diamond argues that Downing Street and Whitehall need to be 'more strategic, more enabling and less controlling' if English localism and Levelling Up is to succeed in future. 

Sepia-coloured Map of England
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes.

The Government's Levelling Up White Paper (launched on Wednesday 2nd February) has been widely derided as a reworking of old ideas without robust spending commitments to support the goal of narrowing regional economic inequalities. The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has talked a good game about transferring power back to communities. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has spoken of 'the largest devolution of power from Whitehall to local leaders across England in modern times'. Yet to many observers, repeated talk of decentralisation rings hollow. After all, the promised White Paper on devolution was cancelled in Autumn 2021, while there are reasons to doubt that the levelling-up agenda will provide a serious plan for devolution. 

It remains the case that over the last decade, all governments have supported the ambition of strengthened English localism. There is nonetheless a recurring gap between promise and performance. The pledge to pass back power to communities is never quite fulfilled. Politicians invaraibly blame local government which, they say, lacks capacity and does not have the imagination to use its powers creatively. However, I argue the reason is less to do with localities themselves than the dysfunctional nature of UK government at the centre which persistently undermines reform. 

Effective localism is not simply about passing down power to local authorities. Any viable localism in England requires a strategic and capable centre of government that enables and does not control. The evidence is that countries that have done best in responding to Covid-19 have functional multi-level governance systems. 

The centralising mindset of Whitehall over the last twenty years reflects its position of weakness. The civil service is increasingly demoralised. Ministers express frustration in their struggle to achieve key policy goals. The political parties, meanwhile, still lack a coherent account of localism. The Conservative Party's vision of the 'Big Society' derived from its simplistic critique of the bureaucratic state. Meanwhile, on the Left, 'Blue' Labour naively implies that central government has eroded the vitality of civil society. It is clear that localism is likely to succeed only if there is a strategic centre of government that co-ordinates the distribution of powers and responsibilities, while also understanding that it must curb its instinct to intervene and interfere at every opportunity. 

Photo showing Road Signs for Whitehall and Downing Street

A root cause of weak English localism is the dysfunctional centre in Whitehall and Westminster. The civil service has been transformed since the 1980s, while the traditional 'public service bargain' has been undermined. There is growing conflict between Ministers and officials, particularly where civil servants are accused of not being enthusiastic enough about government policy. There are increasing tensions driven by the personalisation of civil service appoints, especially of permanent secretaries; recruitment of officials from the private sector; cuts in administrative capacity; and the effort to make officials operational managers rather than ministerial advisers. 

Dysfunctionality also results from the effort to break the civil service monopoly over policy advice. As a result, Ministers now rely less on officials. Politicians invariably come to power with their own distinctive policy proposals. There is growing reliance on management consultants, as well as the expanded influence of think-tanks, advisory bodies and 'celebrity reviews'. Too many policy ideas are not properly thought through. Slogans have replaced serious analysis. The levelling-up agenda seems to fall immediately into that category. 

A further reason is, of course, the endemic centralisation of power in British government. Prime Ministers have repeatedly strengthened capacity at the centre in Number Ten. Policy-making has become more partisan, driven by the permanent campaign mindset. Downing Street units have increased in size. Meanwhile, government business plans set targets for departments and local councils, further undermining localism. The Levelling Up White Paper sets a further series of targets (such as closing the school attainment gap and reducing health inequalities) while it talks about levelling-up as a series of 'national missions', once again undercutting localist ambitions. There is even to be a levelling-up Advisory Council chaired by the Oxford Economics Professor, Sir Paul Collier - another dirigiste initiative from Whitehall. 

The long-term emasculation of English localism, despite the promise of Ministers, has been driven by two fundamental dynamics in British governance. The first is hyper-politicisation: governments are more motivated than ever by electoral and polling objectives, bringing focus group findings directly into the policy-making process. The second is hyper-innovation, the layering of new initiatives onto current policies. The UK has been at the forefront of a global reform wave since the 1980s. This has meant a barrage of ongoing changes to public services. Institutions have constantly been reorganised, epitomised by the shift from Regional Development Agencies to Local Economic Partnerships (now also being dismantled). There is a persistent refusal to join up and align policies, as LAs must make sense of initiatives manufactured in departmental silos in Whitehall. The atmosphere is one of 'microwave not slow-cooker policy-making'. The policy process is invariably anarchic and chaotic, driven by the electoral cycle. There is less capacity for policy learning, while the risks of blunders and fiascos have grown. The changes serve to make local and place-based strategies ever harder to implement. The environment is one in which localism struggles to flourish and develop real momentum in communities. 

Map showing London, Portsmouth and Birmingham

Moreover, central government has continued to hoard power. It is obvious that the Treasury still does not trust councils. New Labour imposed top-down reforms, while the 2011 Localism Act stipulated 142 duties and regulations for local authorities. The dysfunctional centre refuses to address the institutional constraints that undermine the local tier, notably the lack of formal links to Ministers and the absence of constitutional protection. 

A viable localism means a reform agenda for the whole of government. The centre and the local level must be allowed to collaborate in solving complex policy problems at the most appropriate spatial scale, utilising the growing political clout of city-region mayors. Reforms must include increasing capacity for joining-up policies alongside prevention and early intervention. Evidence should be used more effectively, while improving the capacity for deliberative policy-making with citizens. Localism also requires major local government funding reform; constitutional representation of local councils in a reformed second chamber; and enshrining localism principles in statute. 

The UK centre of government cannot realistically be dismantled. But it needs to become more strategic, more enabling and less controlling if English localism is to succeed in the future. The historic distrust of localities and local authorities, especially on matters of finance, must finally be broken. Without that, levelling-up the UK will remain an illusion. 

Dr Patrick Diamond is Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London and the Director of the Mile End Institute.



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