COVID-19 Calls for Decentralisation – Liberal Article
Where you grow up in the UK matters. The UK’s level of regional inequality is one of the worst in the developing world. We are more geographically unequal than 28 other OECD countries. It seems that we are a world heavyweight when it comes to regional inequality. But unlike most world titles, this is not something to be proud of.
It sounds like this issue could not possibly get worse. But don’t be fooled. A global pandemic has a miraculous way of making the impossible possible. COVID-19 has mercilessly exacerbated these pre-existing inequalities, enflaming the UK’s regional divides.
A recent report by LSE states that the rate of economic recovery during the pandemic has been much quicker in the more affluent Southern regions. Not only have the poorer regions been hit the hardest, but they will suffer the debilitating consequences for much longer.
Under the new stress and strain of the pandemic, support for decentralising Westminster has grown rapidly. Empowering local governments may be the remedy that this issue desperately calls for.
Historically, the UK formed a centralised government to address its deep regional inequalities. Now we have one of the most strongly centralised states in the world. Although this was clearly a necessary move at the time, it could now be the very thing that is causing regional inequality rates to rise once again.
I think the move to a less centralised system of government could not happen at a better or more necessary time. The benefits of decentralisation are arguably exactly what this country needs to get back on track and put the pandemic behind us.
Much of the UK has been neglected and people are angry. It is hard to deny the correlation between ‘deprived’ areas of the UK and the rise in support for populist politics. Are we really that surprised? Productivity and earnings are a third to a half higher in London than the UK average. Unemployment is rife in our towns and cities that would have once been the beating heart of our economy. The pandemic has only fueled these deep-rooted issues. We are now at a breaking point.
Decentralising Westminster would help to revitalise the economy – a much-needed change in these unprecedented times. Although you could argue that our economy will inevitably recover with or without decentralisation, this recovery will not be universal. London and its surrounding areas will bounce back with ease. But the reality is, the rest of the UK will not be that fortunate. Decentralisation would mean that all regions would get the opportunity to recover from our economic stagnation. After all, economic recovery should not be exclusive. It is a necessity, not a luxury.
But how would decentralisation actually benefit the economy and reduce the UK’s geographic disparities? Well, firstly, local decision-makers have informational advantages. They would understand exactly what their region needs, meaning the decisions made will be more beneficial to the area. Centralised governments lack this ability. It can only apply sloppy one-size-fits-all solutions that are unlikely to be a ‘good fit’ for any UK region. Therefore, local authorities are more responsive to local needs. As a result, they deserve greater fiscal responsibilities.
Moreover, locally raised taxes increase revenues and improve incentives. Local authorities across Britain would benefit from legislation seen under the Scotland and Wales Acts. Giving greater constitutional power enables regions to become financially self-sustainable. This would mean that local authorities would not need to rely as heavily on the mercy of Westminster.
It is also important to stress that a less centralised system of government allows for much greater levels of innovation. The UK is not known for its innovation. But, according to the WIPO index, Switzerland is, ranking number one in the world. In fact, decentralisation is often considered to be the reason behind Switzerland’s success.
Decentralisation makes the risk of introducing new and innovative policy ideas much lower; policies can be trialled in a singular region to test their success. There are so many somewhat radical ideas that have the potential to revolutionise British politics for the better. But these are highly unlikely to ever be implemented at the national level.
Think UBI, for example. Decentralisation would make grand political ideas a reality. More importantly, if a policy works well in one local authority, other local authorities can follow suit. Therefore, the UK would become more innovative and effective.
The benefits of decentralisation are also not purely economic. Marx was on to something when he suggested that the economic system impacts society at large. If a currently deprived area of the UK starts to function better economically, this, in turn, would lead to a much-needed positive social change.
At the moment, those who live in a more deprived Northern region of England will have a lower income, a lower life expectancy, and are less likely to pursue higher education. Not to mention that these areas have also been much more affected by the pandemic. But decentralisation can change all this. If these regions can defeat their long-standing economic stagnation, they can begin to invest in important social causes, like healthcare and education.
Ultimately, COVID-19 has acted as a spotlight, illuminating the stark reality of the UK’s regional inequalities. Whilst it is unconscionable that the government has sat by in blind ignorance, watching these inequalities mount, it is not too late to act. The case for real and significant decentralisation has never been stronger. And the need for such change has never been greater. The UK government needs to decentralise.
Written by Junior Liberal Writer, Beccy Reeves
Point of Information
This is unrealistic… for now – A Labour Response
The centralisation of power in the UK is a serious issue, one of our writers Max Jablonowski will tell you just how urgently local governance needs reform. So I commend Beccy’s realisation of the issue, particularly the impact that centralisation has had over the course of the pandemic. I also commend her optimism, though I do not share it. Decentralisation is necessary but it is unrealistic for the time being.
I do completely agree that a reform of local governance offers great informational advantages and opportunity to extend representation beyond our so-called representative members of parliament. I also recognise that Welsh and Scottish devolution has benefitted both countries enormously. Living in Wales, I have benefitted first hand from the Welsh devolved powers, and am in complete favour of devolution. However, I also acknowledge that there are still many decisions influenced by Westminster. So while devolution decentralises the government, it does not necessarily decrease the power attributed to the Prime Minister and their government.
Beccy talks about the unlikelihood of radical, innovative policy being implemented in the UK as our current system of government stands. I agree. But, rather ironically, there’s an even larger unlikelihood that her suggestion of decentralisation reform occurs, particularly under Johnson’s government. Sadly, I am not convinced a tory government will directly act to reduce their own sovereignty. Ultimately, reform like this is a great idea in theory but coordinating the logistics and passing legislation would prove too timely and costly to the government’s reach.
I completely agree that Covid-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities, this has previously been discussed at POI, and this is undeniably worse for small-businesses, specific regions and minority groups. But these people are suffering now so, ideally, we need a solution now. Reform is all well and good in theory, and I would cheer loudly if it was implemented, but it would fall short of helping those in need right at this moment.
The best solution, for now, is for Westminster to offer a support package for those desperately affected by the pandemic. Yesterday’s budget is a good start with the extension of the furlough scheme, for example. Even still, there remains a need for greater short-terms relief. The government needs to focus on this immediate support now, rather than a complete overhaul of the local government system. This is unrealistic… for now.
Written by Chief Labour Writer, Abi Clargo
Decentralisation is a good idea needing careful implementation – A Conservative Response
I must say that I do strongly agree with Beccy’s message of decentralisation. I think that Westminster should maintain overall authority, but local politics should most certainly be ‘beefed’ up. I’m not exactly sure on the specifics of what Beccy is proposing, but in theory, I’m in.
The two points that most struck a chord with me, were: (1) innovation; (2) buy-in at a local level.
If done correctly, decentralisation would massively help innovation. It would create smaller, more agile organisations that — as Beccy notes — can try things on a smaller, local level, and progressively scale them. A completely centralised bloc is cumbersome.
It would also create competition. Although we would not want to create zero-sum-games, competition is crucial for efficiency; efficiency being something that the public sector is not known for, at present.
The second point that I would like to echo, that it would help create better proximity to taxes. The intangible notion of a state is so colossal that no one can really feel attached to it. However, if I were to be paying a local tax, and this local tax was spent on bettering the Junction 15 roundabout in Northamptonshire — to name a specific example — taxes would be seen directly improving the area around us. Obviously, taxation does facilitate important services at the moment, but no one is exactly sure what the government does with their money.
The issue with decentralisation, however, is that it can complicate national policy. The gains in efficiency at the local level that Beccy has discussed, may be traded for losses of efficiency at the national level. Regionalisation may complicate standard, routine, and network-based public services, as methods of operation may come into conflict at borders of jurisdiction.
Apart from some rather barbed remarks against the government — of course, the government has not “sat by” idly; they’ve just been rather preoccupied with the biggest crisis since WWII — I largely agree with this article. Yet, there needs to be considerable care in terms of implementation; we cannot do something just because it ‘sounds nice’.
Written by Chief of Conservatives, Alexander Dennis