We are living through a national crisis. But as the news from Leicester has brought into sharp relief, we are also living through a series of local crises. What started centred in London has now moved to afflict northern towns and cities. It will no doubt move again. There are some patterns. Death rates are higher in more deprived areas — even more so than normal. There is also a lot of apparently random variation; similar, neighbouring areas have often had very different experiences. We can expect more local peaks and troughs over the course of the pandemic, possibly requiring more local lockdowns, and certainly requiring localised policy responses.
That is just the immediate health effects. There is also huge variation in potential vulnerability. Despite high numbers of cases in the early days of the pandemic, London, with its younger and healthier population, is likely to be less vulnerable in the long run than some coastal areas and parts of the north and southwest with more elderly populations.
Meanwhile the economic effects have been, and will be, quite different across the country. In this case London may be quite badly hit. It is far more dependent on public transport than anywhere else. There are a lot of jobs in the hospitality, entertainment and non-food retail sectors in the capital; low-wage jobs in a high-wage area. Some coastal areas, Blackpool for example, with a lot of these service jobs and an older and poorer population, could be doubly or triply at risk.
With such a degree of local variation, local responses are necessary. Yet, as we all know, we live in a highly centralised country. And, as we have all seen, trying to run the pandemic response from the centre has not been an unmitigated triumph.
The crisis is not just having differential effects on health and wealth, but also on local government finances. Many local authorities, which are, don’t forget, responsible for social care, will actually be primarily affected by a loss of revenue. Fewer businesses means less income from business rates. More people out of work means less council tax revenue. They are also getting less revenue from sales, fees and charges for parking, use of leisure facilities and so on.
Back to the main point. Last week the Local Government Association made its pitch “rethinking local”, asking, even pleading with, Whitehall to recognise the importance and capacity of tiers of government beyond Westminster in dealing with the pandemic and its aftermath.
“For too long, successive governments have worked from Whitehall, in silos and largely out of touch with local communities,” it says. Amen to that. It wants “a financial settlement that takes full account of the local costs of recovery and recognises the benefits of investment directed by those closest to the opportunities for shared prosperity”. In other words, please don’t believe you can run everything out of Whitehall. More decision-making needs to be devolved and based on local needs and local knowledge.
This week Rishi Sunak will present the first elements of a recovery plan, focused on finding ways to avoid, or at least mitigate, the coming wave of redundancies and mass unemployment. We know he will, rightly, announce a lot more money for Job Centre Plus. He will probably also announce a series of job subsidy and training schemes. What he shouldn’t do is impose a one-size-fits-all recovery plan for the whole country with no scope for local decision-makers to use their local knowledge to help maximise the impact of the large sums he will be committing.
The pandemic will lead us to question many aspects of the way we are governed and the way we run our economy. It should certainly lead us to question the dominance of Whitehall and the historical subservience of local government.
This article orginally appeared in The Times and is used here with kind permission.