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Could the pandemic revitalise the devolution debate?

While ministers pronounce targets and exhort compliance, public sector workers across the country are making decisions and joining forces to respond to COVID-19. Richard Brown asks: could the pandemic revitalise longer-term debates on devolution?

Days during the pandemic have a certain rhythm, whether mid-week or during what we used to call ‘the weekend’. After the daily roll call of cases and fatalities, a government minister appears at a press conference to give the same virtual answers to the same virtual questions. Have we reached a peak? Is there enough personal protective equipment? How do we get out of this?

The charts and graphs tame the horror of deaths with a sense of rationality, and a wood panelled conference room can for a moment look like the command and control centre of a clearly-directed ‘war effort’ battle against an unseen enemy.

It is an illusion – a necessary and comforting illusion perhaps, but no more real for that, despite the wide range of powers granted to the government by the Coronavirus Act. And we should not be clinging to that illusion when we seek to learn lessons from the crisis.

While ministers pronounce targets and exhort compliance, hundreds of public sector workers across the country are making decisions and joining forces to respond to surges of infection as the spread across the country.

Again and again in recent weeks, I have heard similar stories – that measures that used to take months can now be achieved in days or hours, that proceduralism and protectiveness have gone out of the window, that public servants are taking action on the basis that “asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission.”

Officials talk of the value of a sense of shared endeavour and objectives, and health service managers distinguish centralised strategy and allocation of resources from localised decision-making and leadership.

This breathless rush of innovation and adaptation has lessons for how we think about public services coming out of the crisis. In particular, it should revitalise longer-term debates on devolution, and the new constitutional settlement that the country will need when both Brexit and COVID-19 are under control.

Creating tailored local services

Advocates of devolution sometimes make the case in the abstract, simply asserting but local is better. At one level this is surely true: power and decisions should be made as close to citizens and communities as is compatible with national fairness. This is what the European Union refers to the ‘principle of subsidiarity’ (though one that the European Commission is often accused of abusing).

But there’s more to it than that. A second argument for devolution is the argument for particularity – for enabling local services to be tailored to local circumstances. In London, local authorities have worked together to help hospitals clear space in critical care wards, to identify and find hotel rooms for homeless and other vulnerable people, to get food and PPE where they are most needed, and to coordinate volunteer services. All these tasks have depended on detailed local knowledge – of communities and resources, assets and risks – that could never be found in Whitehall.

Allied to this is an argument for integration – enabling local services to complement rather than conflict with each other. Citizens may need support from housing, social care, health services, education, probation, policing, and any number of other services. If these can be brought together, the results should not just be more efficient, but also more responsive to the needs of people and communities. This is never more true than at a time of crisis, when the commitment to deliver results can overcome organisational boundaries. But there is a risk of retreat when the crisis passes.

There is a flipside to all these arguments. Some point out that the centralised direction of the NHS has helped it cope better than Italy’s more fragmented health care system. Locally tailored services can easily look like a ‘postcode lottery’, and incompetently run localised services are no more accountable or efficient than their national counterparts. Even federalised countries like Germany have seen some controversy over regionally-varying lockdown regulations, though the country’s dispersed public health lab capacity has been seen as one of its success factors.

But the crisis has shown what can be done, and in its aftermath, we need a more rational debate about the balance between national standards and local innovation, between centralised strategy and operational autonomy, and between the myths of control and the reality of adaptation.

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Richard Brown is Deputy Director of Centre for London. Follow him on Twitter. Read more from him here.