Article Published March 3rd, 2021
by Nick Forbes
Councillor Nick Forbes, CBE, has been the Leader of Newcastle City Council since 2011. He is also Senior Vice-Chair at the Local Government Association.
If you were to stop people on the streets of the North East in early 2021, and ask whether Covid or Brexit has had the greatest impact on our region, I suspect the universal view will be that the pandemic has caused the greatest damage.
This is understandable, as the impact of Covid has been felt immediately and deeply in disruption to our daily lives. We are highly aware of the damage that it has done to our health, the economy, and society. We have seen the tragic loss of life, and serious and potentially long-lasting impacts on peoples’ physical and emotional health and wellbeing, whether as a direct result of the virus, or as a result of the economic destruction inflicted by the virus and the essential but damaging lockdowns.
Covid has thrown into sharp relief the many existing, longstanding structural inequalities in our economy that motivated me to get involved in politics nearly 30 years ago. The impact of Covid has been felt, and will continue to be felt hardest, by the most vulnerable members of our communities. Those who are most economically disadvantaged have experienced the pandemic differently as it intertwines with existing health inequalities and social conditions and increases existing adversities; financial difficulties, unemployment, loneliness, social isolation, chronic psychological stress and other psychosocial risk factors, already at higher rates among disadvantaged people, have all been intensified by the pandemic. In addition, the pandemic has impacted those already experiencing inequalities through mechanisms such as the reduced ability to work at home, a lack of access to green space, and being unable to participate in social and health-related activity, impacts made even worse by a decade of austerity.
While Covid has exacerbated the many problems the North East has faced for generations, it has also been a year when the best of our communities has also been on display. We have seen a magnificent response to the crisis, in the strength of our places, and of our people. It is often said that the real test of partnerships is not how they do in good times, but how they do in bad times – and the many partnerships in our region, between partners, between communities, between people – have risen to this challenge in the most humbling of ways.
Central to our response has been local government, and despite being structurally and financially undermined for decades by successive governments, councils have stepped into the leadership role of place that has been so vital in coordinating our collective efforts to beat Covid. As well as being remarkably flexible and nimble in setting up new services, redeploying staff and managing the various government support schemes, councils have been essential to bringing organisations and sectors together to support those in need, protect our economy as much as we can from the shock, and provide clear and consistent public health messaging and advice (often in response to confusing, contradictory messages from central government).
There are some lessons to be learned from the differences in how local, and central government, have approached the Covid crisis. It is local places that mobilised to support the most vulnerable. It is local places that proved most effective in test and trace. Most effective in distributing the millions of pounds of grants that have sustained countless small and medium sized enterprises, the businesses that families have built, that employ local people, and who invest locally too. And it is local places, working in partnership across public health, health, and care, who have enabled the vaccine programme to move at such welcome pace.
What this experience has underlined more firmly than ever is that we cannot talk simplistically in terms of economic implications. Economic implications have social implications. They have health implications. And ultimately, although the thread is often tangled and not easy to follow, they have political implications. The interconnectedness of all of these elements has become increasingly clear as a result of Covid, and our thinking on how we respond to them must be more conscious of their complexity and interdependency.
So Covid has shown us, in technicolour detail, the structural weaknesses and cultural strengths of the North East. It therefore provides us with crucial evidence for how our region should respond to Brexit. Covid has accelerated many changes that were already underway – in our working patterns, our retail habits, how we travel around, how we use our leisure time – and the collective leadership challenge we face is to use Brexit as a point of significant change. More of the same is not an option.
Brexit was, for me, a violent shock that turned my view of the world on its head. My entire adult life up until then was shaped by a sense that our world was on a gradual, progressive march towards greater globalisation, human rights and democracy. The Berlin Wall fell the day after my 16th birthday and I remember with joy the reunification of Germany, and the symbolism of international cooperation that the European Union came to represent. Indeed, whilst virtually all of the debate around the EU has been focused on the economy, in my view its greatest achievement has been to bind together countries and regions that had fought for centuries into ever closer harmony. 70 years of peace is a prize not to be dismissed lightly.
I will continue to regret our departure, and that has informed my view of how our United Kingdom is coming to a crossroads in whether we can remain as a single country, or whether the forces that were so polarised in the Brexit debate and aftermath will continue to drive the four nations of the UK apart.
I am by nature an optimist, and I have great faith in the resilience and spirit of the people of our region. And it is in this context that I very much hope that the Treasury’s worst case scenarios for Brexit – and by any impartial reckoning those scenarios were grim reading – do not come to pass. Even if they do, I hope and believe that the people of this region will prove their mettle and the worst impacts will be mitigated and diminished. But I cannot, in writing this, tell you that I believe that some of the already most vulnerable, most disadvantaged, and most worn down by a decade of austerity, those affected already by reductions in welfare, anaemic wage growth, rises in precarious work, will not again bear the brunt of the economic toll to come.
So our task is clear. We must do all we can to minimise that economic damage, with its subsequent social and health impact, whilst at the same time doing our best to take advantage of any opportunities that Brexit does create. One of the ways that we should do that is, I believe, through an active dialogue about our political and constitutional future.
I have welcomed the ongoing discussion that the Federal Trust and These Islands have stimulated around devolution and constitutional reform. While much of that has focused on the union between England and Scotland, and to a lesser degree Wales, it has a resonance for the question of devolution within England, and Jim Gallagher’s recent piece England’s Constitutional Key is a particularly welcome contribution to that debate.
I agree that what we are looking towards is not legislative devolution, but meaningful fiscal and policy devolution, and decentralisation, that truly empowers places to deliver better outcomes for our citizens. That has to be done alongside a new framing of the relationship between central and local government, recognising what each party should and can do, and why. In a centralised state, central government spends far too much time managing (or mismanaging, more often than not) things that they are not well-placed to do. Local government spends too much time mitigating the impacts of that, as well as chasing funding to do the things which should be able to do to make our places work better for our citizens.
This does to me feel like a constitutional moment because the scale of the challenges we are facing – including growing health inequalities and a huge labour market shock – means we need it to be. Continuing with a centralised approach to recovery, when it is that centralised approach that has exacerbated the impacts of the pandemic, is evidently ridiculous.
In the last year we have, in effect, seen sweeping nationalisations. We have seen the recognition that public policy that effectively leaves the weakest behind is not sustainable, or morally acceptable. We cannot go back to that flawed and discredited philosophy that directly contributed to a lack of resilience in our health service, run ‘hot’ for too long, or in our other local institutions, starved of funding to provide even basic services on which our residents rely.
Only decentralisation and more local decision making backed by devolved fiscal power can help us build forward better.
I do think there remains a debate to be had over what approach to devolution we take, and what models we adopt. A gradual process of devolution to mayoral combined authorities is one approach, but I fear that this allows Government the whip hand. Even though I have negotiated a few in my time, I am not a massive fan of ‘deals’; the very language suggests a naked commercial element which I find distasteful. Limiting the conversation about devolution to who manages existing government economic functions misses two major opportunities – public sector reform and the strengthening of local identity. The first is crucial to tackling our social challenges, and the second is vital to holding the UK together as one nation.
In the mid 2000s, as a relatively newly elected councillor, I chaired the West Riverside Sure Start programme. Supported by additional resources from national government, they created grassroots partnerships between public, private and voluntary sector partners with the aim of giving every child the best start in life. This meant blending some universal services (such as nursery provision) that were available to all families, with targeted support for those that needed it. I remember extremely moving conversations with dads in the West End of Newcastle who were learning to read as adults, because they wanted to be able to read bed time stories to their children. The impact of Sure Start, in reduced child poverty, increased educational attainment, a reduction in health inequalities and a fall in youth crime rates, were only just starting to be apparent when the programme was scrapped by the Coalition Government.
Sure Start was, in my view, an example of the “allocative efficiencies” that can not only improve outcomes for people, but reduce long term expenditure on the public purse by focusing on prevention rather than crisis intervention. It is depressing that such ‘system efficiencies’ are rare; the silos in central government, with their parallel lines of accountability, set a policy framework which ignores the real value of place and local leadership. Covid proved that, critical to our ability to respond effectively to the new needs the pandemic presented to us, was the strength of local relationships and trust that had been built up between partners over several years of joint working together. You can’t, by definition, develop such relationships and trust through centralised structures and decision-making.
So one of the ways in which we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past is for a radically different approach to public service delivery. Instead of increasingly threadbare public services focusing mainly on supporting people in times of crisis, we need a place based approach that matches assets and resources to need in a smart, more efficient way. Local government is clearly key to enabling this to happen, but we should not shy away from being bold and ambitious in a post-Brexit world about coming together to provide more and more public services locally that are currently run from Whitehall. This means a proper debate about what configuration of local government – in its broadest sense – is right to shape a positive future the region.
I am also mindful that there are implications to English devolution that spill over into the ongoing discussion around devolution and the Union. The North East is particularly attuned to those discussions, given our shared border and indeed shared history (even if some of that history involved battles between us!). Like the European Union, I believe the Union between England and Scotland is, even with imperfections, to be admired, and a force for good. Any revision to the way in which central and local government in England works must be mindful of the implications for Scotland and the Union.
Whatever we do, transactional, or radical, it needs to be done with consent: conscious consent. As local councillors we have a democratic mandate to lead this debate, and our polling regularly finds that the degree of trust in local government is much greater than central government.
But this is not a debate for elected representatives alone. It is a debate we must have in a way that is informed by, and in full sight of, the public. Like many champions of greater devolution, I am scarred by the rejection of a Regional Assembly in the 2004 referendum. The ‘Yes’ campaign had all sorts of sophisticated arguments about democratisation of the Regional Development Agency, and opportunities for structural reform. The ‘No’ campaign (coordinated by a certain Dominic Cummings) had a blow up white elephant and asked at every press conference how many more highly paid politicians the regional assembly would create.
We must learn from that experience. That means rethinking our approach to the language of devolution. To the person in the street, devolution means little to nothing. And that is a dangerous thing. At its worst, it offers the possibility for people to come to the conclusion that it is, again, something that is going to be done to them, not for them, or with them. That will put us once again on the road to grievance and populism, of pushing back when we should all be looking to push forward, together.
We have to make devolution relevant to people – to convey what will be different and what will change as a result of it. It has been said that devolution is about enhancing the role of the executive within local democracy. To my mind that is a partial and unhelpful definition. Devolution is about enhancing the role of people within local democracy, as a process or means to an end, and improving the quality of life they enjoy, as that end.
The critical element of this is place as the focus of devolution and renewed governance. Effective devolution can, I believe, work only where the public feel a connection to the place they are being asked to endorse and participate in the governance of. Identity is crucial and must resonate clearly in any devolution arrangements.
The North East has a rich and strong identity. It is not just an economic identity, in fact I would argue that our culture is a more cohesive, coherent, and richer driver of our shared perspective. In our thinking about devolution we are clear that the North East should be the starting point of that discussion, a place where identity can lend itself to popular support and shared ambitions to not just build back better, but build back fairer and greener too.
I started by arguing that people in the North East in 2021 would say that Covid, rather than Brexit, has had the greater impact on the region. However, if you were to ask the same question in 2031, I would hope that people would look back and recognise that we heard, and acted on, the call for change to the status quo that I think the vote for Brexit in 2016 represented. I hope that, by then, we will have started to narrow the inequalities gap; that our children will leave school with a greater level of qualifications; that our unemployment rate is below, rather than above, the national average; and that we are on the verge of becoming a region that raises more GDP for the country than we spend on public services. That would be a transformational change for a region that is often – from afar – wrongly characterised as in terminal decline.
One final thought. We cannot see the debate around devolution as a bilateral discussion between the North East and Central Government. Nor can we allow Governments (as they often do) pit regions of the north against each other in competition for limited resources. I helped create the Convention of the North (which I also currently chair) to overcome the pull of parochialism, and build relationships between the civic, political, business and faith leaders across the whole of the north. While the focus of the Convention has to date been primarily about economic devolution, there is, I believe, considerable scope and value in the Convention leading a debate around constitutional reform. As a cross-party, cross-boundary, consensual body, with strong democratic accountability through its member local authorities, the Convention has a voice that Government and others should heed, and I am keen to lead a discussion in this space in the forthcoming months.