One of the issues that must surely exercise minds in Whitehall over the coming weeks and months is whether there is any justification in pushing the devolution agenda in England even further or whether, on the contrary, the COVID-19 pandemic has so changed the political and policy landscape that we might even see the devolution agenda thrown into reverse, with Whitehall taking back more control.
This may seem to be at odds to the general tone of government policy before the pandemic struck, and indeed it is. But given the huge sums of money that the government has thrown at local government and individual industries you can see why some might be asking a pretty fundamental question: if central government and the national taxpayer has thrown so much money at local government and industry, at what point should the government start to impose conditions on how these organisations operate as we emerge, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of the pandemic? Indeed, some say the level of national support hasn’t been enough, and transport authorities in particular are understood to be less than impressed that financial support has been given directly to transport companies not to them.
In normal times one would reasonably assume that in exchange for significant financial support central government would want to impose a range of conditions on the recipients of that support. It’s not clear that this is the case for many of the individual interventions the government has made during this crisis.
Perhaps it’s too early to say how this might all evolve, but what the pandemic has surely shown us is that when a crisis of this nature and scale occurs, it is central government that everybody turns to for help. Not local government, the elected mayors, or any other local entity. Indeed, for a crisis of this scale, it probably couldn’t be any other way as only central government has the resources to respond.
Which surely throws up an interesting policy conundrum. Does devolution have its limits, and are the aspirations of local government, Combined Authorities and so on to have more control over their own destinies than they even do today, have its limits? This is difficult territory, politically, as the mood music in recent years has been very much towards the devolution agenda. But the pandemic has changed the world, and it would not be that surprising if it resulted in a serious rethink on the long-term direction of the devolution agenda.
If it does, it may be difficult to detect, at least straightaway. We may see Whitehall take a discreet, softly softly approach as it seeks to claw back control as a condition of the largess it has shown in recent weeks over the use of taxpayer money, the scale of which we have not seen since the Second World War. Has devolution in England reached its own COVID-19 peak?