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Over the last two years, councils have played a crucial role in responding to the unprecedented challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tens of thousands of rough sleepers and homeless people were helped off the streets, millions of our most vulnerable were shielded from the virus and billions of pounds in vital grants were provided to businesses forced to close or restrict their activities.
Working with our NHS partners, councils have helped to assist with the successful vaccine rollout on the ground; providing venues, staffing support and other vital help to tackle vaccine hesitancy in local areas. At the same time as meeting all of these challenges, they have kept essential services going that people across the country rely on.
The pandemic has highlighted the immense value of the strong local leadership provided by councils and the exceptional commitment of councillors and council staff who have been on the frontline in the battle against the virus. They are among the true heroes of the pandemic and, working closely with central government, local NHS partners, voluntary and community groups, have put in a monumental effort to support and protect local communities.
We must use this Levelling Up White Paper as an opportunity to reset the relationship between national and local government
It is therefore only right that they expect the government to end decades of centralisation and set out an ambitious plan to transfer powers and responsibilities to local communities as part of its Levelling Up White Paper.
During the coronavirus crisis, central and local government have shown what can be achieved when they work together towards a shared goal. As we recover from the pandemic, councils must be placed at the heart of building back better from the pandemic and be given the tools to address the gap in local power and autonomy across England so we can keep pace on the global stage.
In the last 10 years there have been several moves to devolve powers to the local level and help level up more parts of the country. Various powers and budgets have been transferred to combined authorities from Whitehall, based on devolution deals negotiated between local leaders and central government. However, at the same time as this process has been taking place, not all Whitehall departments have been pulling in the same direction, with planning and skills reforms, among others, seeing local communities having less of a say than previously and central control failing to achieve a strategic plan for joined up delivery.
The White Paper is a chance to re-orient Whitehall to prioritise delivering better outcomes for local people through democratically elected local government.
We must turbo charge the speed at which we are devolving powers to local areas. The government should commit to working with councils to set out a national devolution baseline for England, including a list of new powers available to every council without reorganisation being a requirement.
One of the main lessons from the Covid-19 crisis is that a centralised design and control of public services does not work as well as an approach that enables councils to innovate and create new services locally.
As we look to the future, we should end the emphasis on devolution deals designed by Whitehall and instead ensure that all councils can support new infrastructure investment, build more homes, join up public services and provide greater access to jobs and prosperity.
Alongside a bold new commitment to devolution, the government also needs to end the reliance on small, competitively allocated funding pots that councils need to invest in their local areas.
LGA research has found that nearly 250 different grants were provided to local government in 2017/18: half were worth £10 million or less nationally and 82 per cent are intended for a specific service area. Around a third of the grants are awarded on a competitive basis. This patchwork quilt approach to funding hinders councils’ ability to get on and deliver new investment in their local areas.
To deliver joined-up, efficient, and effective public services, councils need the flexibility to put the needs of residents firmly at their core, without the added burden of navigating a complex and fragmented funding landscape.
The government should simplify funding, creating more place-based pots based on very clear and deliverable outcomes agreed with local leaders. They should also end competitive bidding processes, which force different areas to battle against each other for investment and divert scarce council resources from delivering on local priorities.
Fundamentally, we must use this Levelling Up White Paper as an opportunity to reset the relationship between national and local government and put councils at the heart of delivering their own local strategies, alongside the government’s ambitious programme to improve opportunities in all parts of the country.
With the right tools, councils can help rebuild their communities and address the challenges that have been bought by the pandemic.
Cllr James Jamieson is the chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA).
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