Friday 28 August 2020 7:00 am

Who gets to shape what comes next? After Covid, power in the UK must be decentralised

Nadine Smith is UK director of the Centre for Public Impact, a BCG Foundation.

We are all coming to terms with the impact of Covid-19 on our prosperity and life chances. We are relearning how we live, how society functions, and what and who we value most. We are learning how Covid has impacted our communities, and with that has come a realisation of injustices that exist in our society, including a spark which has lit and fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement. 

We are also learning a great deal about power and control in the UK. As we move through different phases of the crisis — from Fight to Rebuild and on to Recover — there are decisions to be made about where power sits and who shapes the subsequent phases of this national journey. Crucially, there is an opportunity to move power away from our heavily centralised, Westminster-oriented system, and involve a multitude of individuals and organisations in the rebuilding and recovery of the UK.  

At the height of the crisis, the central government called the shots — unsurprising, given our centrally organised system. Contact tracing, testing, the search for a vaccine, PPE provision, and lockdown strategies were all being decided and managed from the centre — even the NHS “volunteer army” was centrally managed.  

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Yet at the same time, the crisis has forced new ways of local-level working that sit outside the usual ways of operating. Through CPI’s discussions with local councils, the wider public sector, charities, and voluntary organisations, we are learning what power looks and feels like on the frontline. 

Local services are still under immense strain, but throughout the crisis they have made fast, tough decisions that might once have been seen as outside “normal” rules. Staff have been empowered to make decisions without multiple sign-offs, cutting unnecessary bureaucracy to give people what they need, when they need it. Social workers have been given credit cards to get emergency provisions for in-need families. Doctors say online consultations, which they thought would take years to become the norm, are now standard practice. 

In CPI’s conversations up and down the country, we find that on the one hand power is concentrated at the centre of government, and on the other a pulling away from the centre is being felt. It’s hard for public servants across the country to know how long lasting the new ways of working will be, and it’s hard for central government to know what is really happening at the local level. Finally, it’s hard for citizens to know if the changes they see in their services are here to stay, and when they will get a say over shaping future outcomes.  

Read more: DEBATE: Should the government take equity stakes in struggling businesses to help support them?

A true shift requires really listening to the multitude of voices fighting to be heard. Those who typically sit outside of power structures but have been disproportionately hit by the crisis as a result of social inequality — care workers, the unemployed, people with disabilities, and those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups — must see that their insights carry weight when it comes to shaping policy and services. The danger we face is that unless they are directly and immediately involved in reimagining what comes next for their lives, the same people will continue to lose out, trust will diminish, and frustration will build into resentment.  

The Covid-19 crisis presents an opportunity to involve greater numbers of people and organisations in setting the course for the coming years, rebalancing power from the centre to regions and localities. The case for doing so is both moral and economic; after the 2007 crash, the places that recovered fastest were those with bespoke, local approaches built on trust and strong local legitimacy — nations like Sweden, South Korea and Germany.  

We must look to build trust and strengthen local and regional institutions — for this, we need bold ideas and vision, greater numbers of people with a seat at the table, and a recognition that the answers won’t be the same everywhere. Michael Gove recently set out a series of Whitehall reforms addressing the importance of data, diversity, moving civil servants outside of London and experimentation. I believe that these are fundamental, but they will require a new culture of working together.  

Read more: English councils face £2bn black hole from coronavirus

The scale and complexity of the task that awaits the UK is immense. At every stage of the Fight, Recovery and Rebuild process there will be options and tensions between local and national, people and government. In truth, a combination of ideas that come from all places are key to rebalancing power, and will require us to think about who we are as a country and what values bind us. 

This challenging, emotional, and terrible time has the potential to turn into a moment of awakening for us all — and an opportunity to shift power away from the centre and into diverse hands so that we can really level up together. 

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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