The Case for Greater Devolution

  • By Eleanor Ferguson

The impact of Covid-19 has reignited the devolution debate and our long standing call for further devolved public services. The last 12 months has further served to illustrate that local government continues to be best placed to mitigate challenges and support communities. This briefing draws out the key lessons framed in London Councils’ submission to the APPG for Devolution, whose report is published today.

Overview

Devolution and public service reform continues to be an area of priority for local government. Indeed, the challenges brought about by the pandemic have served to re-energise the debate, as London boroughs have continued to show they are critical to meeting the needs of Londoners. A recent call for evidence from the APPG for Devolution provided London Councils with the opportunity to re-frame our position in light of contemporary challenges. London Councils’ submission showcased best practice, collaborative work and our sustained response to the pandemic. We argued that the challenges that we have all faced since March 2020 have illustrated that local councils are critical to swiftly convening the type of innovative tailored response that keeps London’s communities safe and underpins the capital’s resilience.

Analysis

In order for London to begin to ‘build back better’, in light of our work towards recovery, further devolution of public services should be provided. In order for this to happen, we argued that we must do three things; reform public services by drawing on the local agility that the Covid-19 response demonstrated, bring decision making closer to people, and finally that we need governance across public services. These levers will be critical to unleashing the creativity of Londoners and helping to deliver a successful post-Brexit and pandemic economy. This will allow us to meet the most challenging outcomes for our communities.

Covid-19 Test and Trace

The response to Covid-19 continues to illustrate the importance of organising the delivery of services around local places. Test and Trace for example, in its initial phase was piloted under a centralised system and had a success rate of approximately 50 per cent. By October 2020, Test and Trace was handed over to local government. By comparison, local authorities achieved an estimated 97 per cent contact success rate1. This was largely down to three main components; local communication methods that have shown to be especially effective with those ‘harder to reach’ communities. Contact from a trusted local agency, with local telephone numbers, local staff and drawing on established relationships. Finally, a rapid deployment of tailored support was provided by local government in order to enable social isolation requirements. This example, among many other lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic, illustrates that, by organising services based on the need of communities and building on established local knowledge, local government can deliver superior results.

Health

Health care has been a critical public service for communities over the past year. The importance of mitigating and reducing health inequalities and pressures on our local health system continues to be vital for recovery. London local government, we argued, is a model of good practice for collaboration which enabled london boroughs to identify and meet critical policy challenges. This included, but was not limited to, reducing demand on GPs by cutting waiting times and by creating better links to local government services that help maintain personal well-being and employment support.

One example of the many borough initiatives which was tailored to respond to the pandemic, involved freeing bed capacity in our local health systems. This ensured that patients could be discharged, where appropriate, releasing space for new admissions. Discharge procedures were radically overhauled in March 2020 and, as a result, 6,500 people were discharged from hospitals into the care of local social services teams from 26 March - 12 June 2020. This equates to 25 per cent of the care home capacity in London being filled over a 10-week period and continues to illustrate our support of the NHS as the pandemic continues to evolve.

Communities

The issue of targeting real demand and real need goes to the heart of ensuring that public services address the disproportionate inequalities that have been exposed during the pandemic. Local government’s granular knowledge of, and engagement with, our communities has been critical, while being2 mindful that, for a variety of complex and distinct reasons, those on lower incomes, the young, the least educated and people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds have been hit hardest by the crisis. In the submission we showcased that during the pandemic we have designed local structures to facilitate and support our commitment to reducing inequalities through a place-based approach. This included tailored Covid-19 communications in community languages and developed community led initiatives which can empower and inspire residents.

This type of innovation to enhance public services and reduce inequalities in a specific and tailored way is more effectively achieved when services are devolved. In London our approach to public service reforms made possible through devolution would be underpinned by the work of London Councils’ Tackling Racial Inequalities programme and community-led initiatives such as the innovative ‘Robust Safety Net framework’. Welfare structures and initiatives are such as the Safety Net are especially critical to those within disadvantaged and diverse communities which vary across London.

Commentary

Devolution will allow local government to unlock their full potential to deliver inclusive recovery and growth. The economic and social impact of the pandemic has once again illustrated that local government is indeed best placed to deliver and, as recent months have shown, redesign public services where required.

In many instances, the work local government has provided for Londoners over the past year has continued to illustrate that they are best placed to provide public services and re-invent services in order to meet the needs of Londoners. Public service delivery, health, and community equality are some of the most important areas for devolution moving towards recovery. Recovery provides us with a unique opportunity to not only ‘build back better’ but also ensure that inequalities are significantly reduced. This can be achieved with the further devolution of public services. London councils and partners will continue to advocate for further devolved powers as we anticipate the arrival of the White Paper on Devolution in the coming months.

The APPG for Devolution has launched its report today (see link below) and London Councils will continue to contribute towards shaping the discussion on devolution.

1.  https://www.local.gov.uk/lga-responds-latest-test-and-trace-figure

2.  https://www.ifs.org.uk/inequality/

Eleanor Ferguson, Principal Policy & Project Officer