Whitehall is reluctant to give away powers because it still views local government with “contempt”, according to the former minister tasked with giving London its own mayor.
As minister for London in Tony Blair’s first government, Nick Raynsford was asked to restore city-wide government – scrapped under Margaret Thatcher – to the UK’s capital.
That resulted in the Greater London Authority, and a directly elected mayor for the city with powers over transport, policing and development.
But, in an interview with PublicTechnology’s sister publication Civil Service World – to be published in full this week – Raynsford said he believed that an attitude “almost bordering on contempt for local government” still persists in Whitehall, with both ministers and officials reluctant to emulate the London model and hand down significant powers.
“I was part of a cohort of Labour ministers who had, in a sense, had our first political experiences in the 1970s and 80s,” he said.
“And at that stage local government did not cover itself with glory, and the behaviour of local government at that time was a profound influence. It certainly influenced Tony Blair and others into the belief that local government shouldn’t be given more powers.
“There is also, I think, quite a strong traditional Whitehall view among civil servants, not just among politicians, that local government couldn’t really be trusted. And powers should be kept centrally. I think that’s a profound mistake.”
Raynsford said central government’s reluctance to let go meant it was taking “far too many decisions”, and resulting in government “overload” – a situation he described as “micromanagement gone mad”.
“I had this not terribly easy discussion with a colleague who insisted that he had to have regular information on how many miles of footpath there were in every local authority in the country,” he said. “This is micromanagement gone mad. And unfortunately those attitudes are still there.”
He added: “I think they’ve got to change, because unless there is a change we’re going to see a continuation of central government trying to do too much and not doing it always as well as it should, and of local government feeling undervalued, without responsibility, without the ability to really shape decisions in its own area, and as a consequence, not attracting the best talent.”
The former minister – who spent almost decade in government focusing on devolution, housing, construction, fire services and planning – said he had been “really heartened” to see former local government chief executives Lin Homer and Bob Kerslake “coming and taking senior positions in Whitehall”.
But he said that pair of senior hires – both of whom have since left the civil service – did not seem to have shifted attitudes to local government, and warned that a lack of real decision-making clout meant local government itself was struggling to attract top-flight candidates.
“It’s a vicious circle,” he said. “You don’t get really able people coming into local government. You do get some – but there is a reluctance to get involved and stay involved in local government because they can’t see it as a means of really making a change, because too many decisions are still taken centrally.”
Raynsford also questioned whether the “ad-hoc” bid to devolve powers to city regions spearheaded by former chancellor George Osborne – and dubbed the “Northern Powerhouse” in its Manchester incarnation – would survive without “a really coherent framework for acheiving that across the country”.
The first deal was struck by the government and the new Greater Manchester Combined Authority in 2014, with the region set to gain a range of new education, transport, welfare and housing powers in exchange for bringing in a directly elected mayor.
But Raynsford said Manchester had succeeded because Osborne had been approached by local politicians who already had a coherent plan to work together, as well as years of experience of taking “tough decisions”.
“If you are to get that change that I argue for – government doing less but doing it better, devolving more, giving more power to local authorities so that local authorities will have more say over the future of their area – that depends on something that’s going to work everywhere, not just in one or two regions where you have the happy accident of good people who have fought through the issues and prepared the ground.”
CSW’s full interview with Nick Raynsford, discussing his new book “Substance Not Spin”, will be published later this week