One of the frequent and consistent comments about Prime Minister Johnson’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has focused on the extent to which this has been an opportunity for government recentralisation in the UK. This has been observed at every level of the state and has, on the pretext of the emergency, included a number of policies not apparently directly related to dealing with the pandemic.
This started at the outset with a centralised approach to managing local outbreaks and contact tracing, against World Health Organization advice and successful practices in other countries managing to control the spread of the virus. Initially this approach was regarded as Public Health England (PHE)’s attempt to regain powers that had been passed to local authorities in the 2012 Health and Social Care Act as local authorities were side-lined. However, the subsequent approach to the implementation of a ‘privatised pandemic’ (G. Monbiot (2020) Tory privatisation is at the heart of the UK’s disastrous coronavirus response, with contracts for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and track and trace being handed to companies known to the government but frequently with little track record of this type of supply – centralised the power of delivery in a few hands in 10 Downing Street. It was only the increased erosion of public and business confidence in No 10 that has gradually transitioned this to a locally led approach while increasing policy centralisation through the absorption of the PHE into a new body, the National Institute for Health Protection. This has been compounded by no transparent processes to recruit its new Chair, rather appointing a Conservative peer with no experience of public health.
Outside England, the responsibilities for public health are devolved. Although there was considerable coordination and liaison between the four nations initially, this broke down after the Prime Minister started to move out of lockdown faster than the other First Ministers considered safe. As Johnson was seen increasingly as the PM for England only, other centralising policies began to emerge. The first was the introduction of a cap on English students accepted by universities in the other three nations. Others then followed, including the creation of a UK single market, post-Brexit, that would remove the powers of the devolved administrations for food standards.
In addition to the increasing centralised policy pressure being placed on the devolved administrations, there has also been an absence of a working relationship between the Mayor of London, a role formerly held by the Prime Minister, and No 10 Downing Street. As a directly elected mayor for the major part of the UK economy and over 10 per cent of its population, Sadiq Khan has not been invited to Cobra briefings on handling the pandemic or the economy. The March 2020 lockdown had the expected effects on the income and budget of Transport for London, whose revenues dropped by 90 per cent. The Mayor had to seek government support but in return has been required to implement government policies for increasing road charging and to accept a review of the way that TfL works, all in the expectation that his responsibilities for TfL will be reduced or removed.
This approach to centralising decision making in No 10 has extended to other major institutions of government, including the lack of respect for Parliament’s role as exemplified in continuing to hold remote sittings for those MPs who were shielding and in the attempt to flout the law by imposing Chris Grayling as Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (Statement from Julian Lewis MP to PA News Agency 16th July 2020). This approach has also extended further into the reform of the civil service and the removal of permanent secretaries – five and counting.
While these centralising actions have been cloaked in an ‘emergency’ wrapper – the Prime Minister arguing that his actions are responses to up-to-the-minute medical advice and the pandemic’s progress – is this really all about the pandemic? There is evidence to suggest that the PM’s response to COVID-19 has been used to accelerate the recentralisation of power in the UK that was already underway and may have more to do with the governance changes that arise from Brexit – including the practices of administrative law and subsidiarity. The evidence of these moves has been accumulating since the Brexit referendum in 2016. The strongly contested Wales Bill in 2017 sought to remove powers from the Welsh Parliament. The White Papers and legislation for Brexit preparation under the Theresa May premiership recentralised powers for the environment, transport and agriculture ministries. Next, as one of the penultimate acts of her premiership in July 2019, May announced the establishment of the Dunlop Commission during a major speech in Stirling. The City Deal programme has been another policy of recentralisation as groups of local authorities across the whole of the UK are being funded directly from Whitehall for local projects that have been centrally prioritised. Devolved governments have been bypassed in the decision-making process for these City Deals, and have largely had to be compliant in the face of direct funding offers to local areas from Whitehall.
So where is this recentralisation headed and what is its ultimate destination? These acts by No 10 express a coordinated approach but their apparent ‘random’ nature makes them difficult to recognise and challenge as a policy pattern and design as they have no overarching narrative. Is it time for this to change?
Dr Janice Morphet is the author of upcoming book, ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Devolution’ and is a Visiting Professor at the Bartlett School of Planning. A Fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute, she has been chief executive of a local authority, head of University school of planning and landscape, a senior adviser on local government in central government and a consultant. Janice has been a trustee of the RTPI and TCPA and was a member of the planning committee for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
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