England’s overcentralised state has already undermined the country’s ability to respond to the spread of Covid-19. Now it looks set to undermine the economic recovery too.
As the country takes its first tentative steps towards getting back to work, all the key decisions are being taken by the same ministers who have overseen the disastrous response to the initial pandemic.
Faced with an economic contraction unprecedented in its speed and depth, every business from a large factory to a small shop that can reopen safely helps our chances of stopping the recession becoming a depression.
Meanwhile, different parts of the country are grappling with widely varying rates of hospital admissions for Covid-19. While admissions per 100,000 population in London were by far the worst in England a month ago, now it is the north-west which has a rate markedly higher than the rest of the country. But in the south-west, the admission rate has remained low.
Yet the new rules governing our lives announced by Boris Johnson on Sunday apply equally to a Cornish village and Manchester city centre.
The relentless march of centralisation has meant that every substantial problem in this unfolding health and economic catastrophe ends up on a minister’s desk for resolution. Providing food parcels for people being shielded, how contact tracing is going to be managed, which schools and businesses can open, finding the money to address each new difficulty – answers to all these questions and countless more are under the control of an overwhelmed central government machine.
The gargantuan furlough scheme is an extreme example. Its final cost could well be close to £100bn, not far off the annual bill for the NHS in England. But, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned, it may soon start damaging the economy more than it protects it. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has an impossible task in trying to manage this balance.
The economy could be restarted far more quickly and effectively if the mayors of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Liverpool city region, or councils in the south-west or the east, had the resources and powers to mould this scheme to their unique local circumstances.
The West Midlands needs support for manufacturing. The east of England fears for agriculture. All along the east coast are ports that need to get trade moving with Europe again (and prepare for Brexit). These differing needs require local solutions.
Instead, they are doomed to a single response seen through the blinkers of a distant government without the capacity to understand or respond to local needs and opportunities.
The Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, has highlighted the way this central grip is throttling the north-west’s ability both to get a virus under control and to restart the economy. He is pleading with government for his region to be prioritised for contact tracing, while underlining the failure to provide funding to get the tram system back to capacity so people can return to work with some hope of obeying social distancing rules.
The blueprint for the recovery (pdf), released this week, recognises that government structures will need to be reformed to learn lessons from the crisis and to prepare for future epidemics. But the wording gives every indication that it is going to learn the wrong lessons.
Yet again, the government ignores the vital contribution that councils have made to meeting the unique circumstances of their communities and perpetuates the delusion that the pandemic “has shown many parts of government at its best”.
The civil service has responded to the emergency with the same dedication and resolve as every other part of the public sector, but it has been fatally compromised by attempting the impossible task of running everything from Whitehall while under poor political leadership.
Failed leaders in all walks of life believe the answer to any crisis is “more me”. If ministers learn anything from this calamity, it should be the urgent need to move power, capacity and money out of Westminster and Whitehall.
• Richard Vize is a public policy commentator and analyst