Tiered and tested

Joyce Quin on the need to better involve local government in tackling Covid-19 and the recovery that follows

Under the UK’s devolved arrangements, it is possible for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to formulate their own strategies and approaches to dealing with Covid-19. Contrast this with England which, with over 80% of our country’s population, is largely governed by a centralised approach decided in Whitehall and Downing Street.

The limitations of the latter, one-size-fits-all approach to policy have become all too apparent in recent weeks.

Understandably, and rightly, there has been huge concern and dismay at the findings that BAME communities have been clearly and disproportionately hit by the virus. But is also clear that there are regional and local variations in England that are not properly being addressed; as well as a deeply worrying trend that it is the least well-off communities which are worst affected.

As a result, local councils and elected mayors in England are becoming increasingly vocal about the failures of a centralised approach. In the North East for example, certain local authorities – Gateshead, Middlesbrough, South Tyneside, and Sunderland – have all been identified as being in the top ten areas with the highest per capita infection rates. Unsurprisingly, council leaders and mayors have been critical of the easing of lockdown, particularly in relation to schools, fearing that their communities will be the first to experience a second spike.

The London region has seen significant difference between boroughs, with Croydon and Brent having particularly high infection rates. London also reveals substantial inter-regional disparities with wealthier boroughs tending to fair better than deprived ones. Regional strategies, therefore, need to also focus on the best way of tackling the virus in the worst affected localities.

In the North West of England, the R rate is now estimated at 1.01%, vindicating the concerns of the elected mayors of Merseyside and Greater Manchester that regional variations must be identified and tackled quickly. The latter’s Labour mayor, Andy Burnham has warned that the Prime Minister faces “a fracturing of national unity if he ignores the regions in the coronavirus outbreak.”

As my colleague John Eatwell stated last week in his Lords debate on the UK economy, local government has had to face huge financial cuts over the past decade – amounting to some 60%. Despite such financial challenges, councils have been playing a vital part in tackling the current pandemic. Moreover, local government, provided it is adequately funded, can play a key role in economic recovery and regeneration – through building partnerships with industry and the private and public sectors.

Many such examples of successful, council-driven initiatives can be found in the recent past. As a former MP for Gateshead, for example, I was immensely proud of the extraordinary vision of our council in leading the North East’s regeneration, from the iconic Angel of North to the transformation of Gateshead Quays into a regional – and nationally-important – cultural hub. Look too at the actions of Birmingham City Council and its partners from the mid-1980s onwards. Across the UK, there are countless such success stories to celebrate.

For all these reasons, my message to government is simple and straightforward – with need to do two things. First, involve local government much more in current decision-making relating to this crisis. Second, ensure councils have the resources needed to play their crucial role in helping to bring about future recovery and prosperity.

Baroness Joyce Quin is a Labour Peer

Published 7th June 2020

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