Opinion

Tiered lockdowns and local government: the policy vacuum at the heart of the UK

Sweeping a problem under the rug, the saying goes, does not make it disappear. Unless, that is, you are the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during a global pandemic.

To be fair to Westminster, the intentions behind delegating Coronavirus-related decisions to local councils through a tiered approach were good. In countries such as Spain, Italy, and until recently France, localised setups have spared areas without marked resurgences from the economic and health-related impacts of the strictest measures. Combined with the availability of increasingly detailed pandemic data, surely comparable benefits should be felt here?

The crucial difference is that for many years, continental Europe’s institutions of local government have had the political muscle to make genuinely tough decisions. This is not the case in the UK.

The plight of councils long predates the emergence of Covid-19. Between 2010 and 2018, Parliament itself admitted to the fact that “[Central] Government funding for local authorities has fallen by an estimated 49.1% in real terms”. The loss of this valuable source of income was in itself a hard blow, worsened further by the simultaneous increase in pressure on public services. Swelling class sizes in schools, inadequate provision of social care, and a growing crisis in care homes are stark reminders that councils nowadays struggle to provide their communities with the bare minimum. For some, even this was simply too great: austerity claimed its most famous victim when Northampton County Council entered bankruptcy two years ago.

Against this already dire backdrop, the catastrophic impacts of Coronavirus over the last seven months have catalysed the erosion of local authorities. Yet despite this, Westminster is actively expecting these same authorities to step up and lead the policy response to the most serious crisis facing Britain since the Second World War. Councils barely have the resources to collect the recycling every week, let alone to break apart extended families or to force shut non-essential businesses.

Proponents of the Government would point out that large sums are being offered in support of Tier 2 and Tier 3-affected areas. The problem, however, is that even if this money were to cover the financial shortfall – a dangerous assumption, given the point-blank refusal that Andy Burnham’s costed demands to support wages encountered from Downing Street – years of austerity in councils has left their decision-making mechanisms in tatters. As an anecdotal example, the authorities that run South Gloucestershire, the area just north of Bristol that I call home outside of term time, were recently forced into a policy U-turn on the construction of 80 homes because (and I quote) “the Council’s video technology meant the public could not hear the debate online.” The only solace to be found in this incompetence is its trivial, absurd nature. I need not recall the more serious consequences that could come from other councils’ negligence after Grenfell, which has left 56,000 people living in buildings with flammable cladding to this day.

Besides their Westminster-induced short fallings, councils are additionally undermined by another institution of regional government that has countered their ability to act: the devolution of powers. The response to Coronavirus has well and truly separated what was the United Kingdom into four different nation-states. England follows a system of three tiers yet Scotland inexplicably has five; Wales opted for a national fire break but Northern Ireland chose a hybrid lockdown; as I write these sentences, police are currently deployed on the Welsh border to stop those entering or leaving – a situation we last saw over half a millennia ago. Measures are confused, contradictory, and incompatible with one another.

In this mess, the British public would rightfully be forgiven for asking themselves the question, “who do I listen to?”. Outside of the English borders, is the overruling voice of reason that of Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford, or local council leaders? And what of those living in Greater Manchester, whose mayor initially refused to enforce the restrictions that Westminster sought? The boundaries and interactions between regional and centralised authority are blurred, leaving any tiered, local lockdown approach at the heart of a policy vacuum.

Comparisons between the current resurgence of Coronavirus and a ‘second wave’ are somewhat missing the point. The seasons are no longer acting in the NHS’s favour. The Treasury’s money saved (or rather borrowed) for a rainy day – all £208.5bn of it – has already been blown. Systemic failures within track and trace have undone in weeks the progress from months of sacrifice. Impatience, discontent, and reluctance to accept more restrictions are understandably growing among the population. The situation is not only frighteningly reminiscent of where we were in March but in many ways frighteningly worse.

If the UK wants to withstand the coming tsunami this winter, effective, coordinated leadership is required now more than ever. Councils unquestionably have a role to play in any local lockdown system, but they cannot do it alone.

Image source: Institute for Research on Public Policy