Locking down and levelling down: this is a grim moment for England’s regions
The events of the last 24 hours have stripped away the veneer of our political establishment and revealed the fractious relationship between central and local government.
What has happened in Greater Manchester has propelled the debate on English regionalism to the top of the national agenda. It may be remembered as the moment when English devolution ‘just got real’.
The relationship between central and local government has been in decline for some time now, worn down by ten years of austerity in which local government took the brunt of the centre’s fiscal constraint ideology. Across England, council spending fell by 13 per cent between 2009/10 and 2018/19 but in the North, the fall was 20 per cent, the equivalent of £347 per person, eroding resilience in the region.
But the Government’s efforts to undermine the relationship still further during the Covid-19 crisis have done the real damage. The recent weeks of ‘deal making’ with local areas have sought to antagonise, through careless briefings which have targeted the media ahead of elected representatives, and attempts to strong-arm areas like Liverpool and Greater Manchester into accepting inadequate ‘deals’ that presume families can somehow survive on two thirds of the minimum wage.
But these ‘deals’ are loaded in advance in the interests of Whitehall. Instead of establishing a clear and transparent framework of support, proportional to need, for tier 3 areas, central government has employed a strategy of divide and rule. The tone has been provocative and confrontational, jarring untastefully with the seriousness of the crisis for people and their families. The future of lives and livelihoods reduced to a high stakes poker game. Government doesn’t trust local. On any level. Its centralising tendencies demonstrate its fear of succeeding power to leaders who best understand, and are able to act in the best interests of local places.
As part of their deal making approach, in the midst of the biggest crisis in living memory, the government have contrived to present a false choice between health and economics. But in real life, there is no either/or choice to be made between a good economy and people’s health. We need to shield people from coronavirus, but government also have an obligation to shield them from forced unemployment, destitution, and despair with all the wider health consequences which come with economic hardship. The warning signs are already flashing with 75,000 more people claiming unemployment benefit in Greater Manchester alone since January 2020.
Even before this crisis, the UK was the most regionally divided of its size and level of development. Levels of poor health including coronary heart disease and diabetes are well above the national average in many areas of the North and we have some of the lowest rates of life expectancy, even before Covid-19. One in four northerners earn less than the real living wage and levels of child poverty continue to rise. As with previous recessions, we know that the social and economic recovery from this crisis will be slower in the North than in other parts of the UK. So investment now is about safeguarding the recovery and keeping as many people as we can, economically afloat.
This is what levelling up ought to mean in the context of Covid-19. Having people’s backs, helping them stay in control of their lives and having respect for the knowledge, expertise and understanding of the local leaders that they elect to represent them. Instead the Government’s tactics have been to level down, by punishing the people and businesses of places like Greater Manchester for having a mayoral combined authority prepared to push hard in the interests of its community.
For those of us who argued for it, devolution was never just a one-off event but a process to change the balance of power in England for good. Mayors and their allies have shown that locality and proximity can be powerful. They have built their arguments on the politics of place rather than of party. Local leadership during this Covid-19 pandemic has provided a glimpse of how a regional approach to a decentralised democracy could change our national politics for the better. We must use the lessons we learn now to build a new vision for English Democracy which places real power and investment in the hands of our regions.
Sarah Longlands is Director of IPPR North. She tweets @sarahlonglands.