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The role of local leadership - Dr Simon Kaye

In this think piece Dr Simon Kaye, Director of Policy at the think tank Reform, discusses the importance of local leadership in securing powers from central government, and how intelligent self-governance can help realise levelling up ambitions.

Only eight months on from the publication of a landmark White Paper, the levelling up agenda is in a state of flux.

Under Liz Truss and Simon Clarke, the redistributive aspects of the programme originally described by Michael Gove and Andy Haldane seemed to be waning. Focus has been firmly placed on fostering local growth via low-regulation, low-tax ‘investment zones’. Details about investment zones are still being worked out, and there is rumour of a Whitehall debate over how ambitious the government can afford to be with such a policy (no prizes for guessing what side of the debate the Treasury finds itself on). It is also unclear whether appetite for this approach will persist following another change of leadership.

The other crucial variable here is the state of the wider economy, and the idea that we are on the cusp of yet another era of fiscal retrenchment. To the extent that levelling up is an agenda predicated upon actual investment, the scale of local ambitions will likely now need to be curtailed; what we don’t yet know is how much.

All of this means that, once again, central government fiat is dictating the terms of the most important localism agenda for a generation – even one which has been preserved through rapid changes of prime minister and absorbed, wholesale, by the official opposition. The financial, political, and administrative uncertainty generated by circumstances in Westminster and Whitehall don’t only affect the markets, but the performance and possibilities in local government, too. Power is so centralised that localities have no insulation from the dysfunctions playing out at the centre.

Can local leadership unlock devolution?

It is good, then, that devolution plays an important role in each successive conception of ‘levelling up’. Local leadership is proving to be the ingredient that allows central government officials and politicians to overcome, at least in part, their traditional reluctance to share meaningful powers and accountabilities with their counterparts at a more local level. The current model of devolution revolves around the creation of combined authorities with directly-elected mayors, and this specific structure means a larger scale of organisation over a broader geography. This concentrates ‘leadership’ into the person of a single, high-profile, easily-identifiable ‘character’ as a core responsible figure: someone to galvanise local activity, focus accountability, and with whom central government can foster a single working relationship.

There are clear advantages to this model, and combined authorities represent a scale of governance which makes sense for a lot of activity. However, this is also clearly a form of local leadership that is defined by central government’s needs, biases, and policies. It remains odd that devolution remains wholly focused on only this approach, leaving aside the local authorities with greater direct responsibility for implementation, and with (arguably) a more natural and direct connection with the communities of place and interest around which a successful levelling up agenda must necessarily revolve.

The clear need for deep local cooperation, involving combined authority mayors as well as those more directly involved in delivery – could yet pave the way for a richer and more granular conception of local leadership.

The variability of powers held directly by combined authorities and the potential for mismatch between direct personal accountability and control of the powers and resources needed to deliver on levelling up projects is already emerging as a source of difficulty for the agenda. More positively, however, the clear need for deep local cooperation, involving combined authority mayors as well as those more directly involved in delivery – could yet pave the way for a richer and more granular conception of local leadership.

Whitehall biases

A fashion for devolution of any kind is welcome, of course (and has not, historically, ever been a given in this country). But the prevalence of the metro-mayor deal model is revealing in itself: it reflects some of the deep biases that pervade the system of government in the UK.

In Reform’s new research we offer an analysis of some of these biases, arguing that they severely limit central government’s ability to tackle longstanding problems, respond to emergencies, or find pathways to self-improve. These biases include power-hoarding, bureaucracy, and a powerful tendency toward a single shared mindset. Their result is groupthink, overcentralisation, and an obsession with process that prevents fast adaptation and the adoption of longer-term, preventative policymaking. 

These challenges are interlinked. Those working in local government already know what the growing evidence base suggests: that the collaborations and community-engaged approaches that allow for genuinely improved public services necessarily play out at local scales, and can’t be micromanaged from Whitehall.

Collaborative local leadership

One crucial way to tackle power-hoarding is to systematically redistribute power away from central government. In another new paper, Reform explores what this could mean in the shifting context of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. Here is where a broader conception of local leadership – one which extends the current model of devolution so that powers and capabilities are also strengthened at smaller scales of local government – might come into play.

The focus of our research for this paper was East Birmingham, and the fascinating example being set by Birmingham City Council, Solihull District Council, and the West Midlands Combined Authority as they make a joint case for a major new investment zone to capitalise on the impending arrival of the HS2 train line. The prize would be the transformation of some of the most deprived communities in our country.

In order to make this joint case for change, different local government players have been liaising beyond party-political difference and through the often-impregnable institutional boundaries that tend to arise between organisations that function at different scales. This is an example of local leadership playing out across multiple scales of organisation as a regional polity seeks to reinvent itself.

Their shared goals are, correspondingly, more ambitious than the emerging investment zones model will accommodate by default. In our research we suggest that achieving levelling up for East Birmingham and North Solihull would require a radically simplified, consolidated, and devolved funding model: a departure from the fractured, centrally-held, and competitively-allocated funding pots which provide the lion’s share of resource for local efforts to level up.

And to ensure that investment enjoys genuine local accountability and is properly aligned with public services and direct collaborations with local organisations and community groups, we also make the case for a devolution programme with subsidiarity at its core, so that powers and accountabilities are, by default, ‘owned’ by whatever scale of government is positioned to achieve the best outcomes.

Toward self-governance?

Investment zones, alone, cannot do the job in places where the social fabric itself is threatening to unravel. And Whitehall has to understand that it cannot hope to make a difference from its distant vantage-point. Real local leadership will be needed instead: not only the mayoral-scale leadership that is fetishized by government at present, but intelligently distributed leadership that respects the complexity and contextual nuance in local places.

Self-governance of this sort is not yet a fashionable way to think about such leadership, but it may be the only sustainable route to realising the potential of the levelling up agenda.

Dr Simon Kaye is Director of Policy at the think tank Reform.