Administrative leapfrogging – The Communities Secretary and avoiding the devolved middle-men
By Lee Marsons (University of Essex)
On 6 July 2021, the Local Government Association held its annual conference at which the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (hereafter ‘the Secretary of State’) delivered a keynote address. This was a speech of some importance. It may not have contained a detailed policy or legislative agenda, but nonetheless the Secretary of State set out with good enough clarity an emerging political and constitutional vision of the relationship between central, devolved, and local government, at least in the context of his portfolio. The speech also set out a growing vision of how the administration of central government would be reformed geographically to foster greater political connections between central government and all parts of the UK.
The Secretary of State’s speech essentially sets out an ideal of central government – local government partnerships, with Ministers seeking to work directly with local officials such as mayors and councils to achieve central government priorities, notably in the area of socio-economic regeneration. To accomplish this most effectively, the Secretary of State believed that it was necessary to avoid interaction with regional tiers of government (“filters” as he called them), which in his view would interfere with the efficiency of these programmes. Given the lack of expressly regional government in the UK, I use this term loosely to refer to tiers of government between central government and local councils, such as the devolved governments and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), though I am aware of the inadequacy of this phrasing. For the purposes of this blog, I will call this practice “administrative leapfrogging” – where central government seeks to administer its policy goals directly with local officials, while avoiding a tier of government or institution that is regarded as hostile or unnecessary.
The speech is also important because implicit in the Secretary of State’s vision is an attempt to use central government interaction with local government to achieve broader political and constitutional aims in relation to maintaining and promoting the union of the UK, and producing a stronger connection between central government and local communities across the country. Rightly or wrongly, the Secretary of State believed that this would not be accomplished through partnership with the devolved administrations. Finally, but perhaps most critical of all, the speech is important because its themes interrelate with a number of other reforms that strengthen the powers and influence of central government in critical sites of independent accountability and decision-making. Another broader theme is that the speech is reflective of a more sceptical take on localism and devolution that has slowly been developing in central government. This blog will consider each of these issues briefly.
Administrative leapfrogging, not legislative change
The speech was not an assertion of central government power for its own sake, nor the announcement of a desire to remove legal powers from devolved or local governments and institutions. Indeed, if anything, notable is that the speech was not about express statutory power at all and entirely about administration. The Secretary of State’s vision was of an assertive central government directly connecting with local government as a means to achieve important central government policy goals, potentially enabling ministers to avoid those devolved or larger local bodies which may be more difficult for ministers to manage or reach political agreement with. This may also be part of the justification for the continued ministerial approval for local mayors (such as in West Yorkshire) – it is easier to reach agreement with one person than a panel on a LEP. Those policy goals were ones with which we have become thoroughly familiar under various rubrics (“Levelling Up” and “Building Back Better”).
As the Secretary of State put it:
“We aspire to be a one nation government, serving the whole of the UK. It is therefore right that our work from central government continues to reflect that. Devolution to Cardiff, Holyrood or Stormont should not mean stripping those councils and communities of their direct relationships to the UK Government. Another focus for my department over the course of this year will be re-establishing those bonds, seeing its mission as levelling-up Swansea as much as Southport or Southampton.”
Over the last several years, we have become used to innumerable speeches and words lauding the importance of localism. Though there have been localist and devolutionary moves during the Johnson administration and we continue to be promised a White Paper on English devolution, the emphasis of the Secretary of State’s speech is notably different. The priority is not statutorily distributing legal power from central government and transferring functions to more local tiers of government, it is instead entirely avoiding some tiers of government in order to work directly with some, though not all, local decision-makers so as to achieve the socio-economic priorities of the central government.
Also interesting is how the Secretary of State implicitly connects administrative leapfrogging with the government’s broader constitutional objectives for the union of the UK. The central government is being mobilised not just to achieve economic policy objectives but also broader constitutional goals of maintaining and fostering British identity within the union. The Secretary of State expressly believes in all parts of the country having a strong administrative relationship with the central government, not just their devolved or local governments. Perhaps this is part of a broader electoral strategy – given the success of the Conservative Party in unexpected areas, central government must be seen to be doing something everywhere. The utility of central government must be visible.
The Secretary of State was even more overt when he said of his department:
“MHCLG has seen itself for too long as an England only department. We are one United Kingdom and MHCLG should aspire to represent and support communities in all parts of the UK.”
Part of this strategy was opening more departmental offices outside of London, such as the department’s second headquarters in Wolverhampton. This would apparently:
“Debunk…the myth that civil servants and government can only happen in Whitehall. It can and should be happening in other parts of the country.”
Devolved governments were not the only tier of government being leapfrogged:
“[T]he one principle I will stick to is that central government should be working directly with councils and we should avoid filters wherever possible, including Local Enterprise Partnerships…We are already working directly with one third of towns across the country and I’ve seen for myself…the difference this kind of investment can make.”
To encourage this direct engagement between central and local government, the Secretary of State argued that he would make accessing central government funding easier and less procedurally onerous. In relation to the Community Renewal Fund, for instance, he noted that:
“We appreciate that these funds bring challenges to local councils and we want to ensure there are fewer competitions in the future, more consolidated opportunities to access government funding.”
In sum, while the practice of administrative leapfrogging may not alter the legal importance of devolved government or other more local bodies, it may well have important implications for the administrative importance of those institutions if they are simply avoided and ignored when central government administers its policy goals. It will be interesting to see how far this approach is adopted more widely in central government over time.
Connections with the broader constitutional direction
The administrative leapfrogging seen here is part of a broader trend of ministers seeking to exercise greater power or influence over important sites of independent accountability and decision-making. I do not say whether that is a good or bad thing, I simply seek to hint at the trend at this stage.
For instance, in the civil service we have seen to date the departures of seven permanent secretaries following an alleged ‘hard rain’ attitude towards senior civil servants – Sir Mark Sedwill, Sir Philip Rutnam, Sir Simon McDonald, Sir Richard Heaton, Sir Jonathan Jones, Dame Rowena Collins Rice, and Jonathan Slater. In Parliament, we have seen the Prime Minister withdraw the Conservative Whip from Julian Lewis MP, after he stood against the government’s preferred candidate for Chair Intelligence and Security Committee, Chris Grayling MP. Similarly, with the Liaison Committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP was successfully installed as Chair as the government’s preferred candidate, despite the chairmanship normally be left to the Committee. The Conservative Party itself has experienced similar events. It has been widely reported, for instance, that Heather Wheeler MP, perceived as the Prime Minister’s favoured candidate, unsuccessfully challenged the serial rebel, Sir Graham Brady MP, as Chair of the 1922 Committee.
In addition, on 6 July 2021, the ownership of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the company which manufactures the warheads of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, was transferred from a consortium of BNFL, Serco, and Lockheed Martin, to the Ministry of Defence after the government triggered a contractual clause requiring the consortium to transfer ownership. The Secretary of State for Defence will now personally appoint the board of directors and the chair of the company. On the same day, the Heath and Care Bill was published, which grants the Secretary of State for Health a “general power to direct NHS England” on most matters. This is markedly different from the Lansley vision of an autonomous and independent NHS England only eleven years ago.
Each of these actions can be justified on their own terms. Indeed, it is difficult to argue against Ministers having direct control over the manufacturing of nuclear warheads or exercising greater control over an organisation with an annual budget of £114bn. However, the point is that, whether it is through strategic appointments, attempted de-appointments, triggering nationalisations, administrative leapfrogging, or statutory powers of direction, there is a discernible trend of ministers obtaining, or seeking to obtain, greater direct legal power or at least political influence over important sites of political accountability (see the 1922 Committee and the parliamentary committees) and decision-making (see NHS England and the AWE). This may be good or bad. But it is important to note this trend and to explore how it is manifesting over time and in different areas so that the constitutional issues at stake can be better exposed.
This speech may also be indicative of the government’s broader attitude to devolution and localism. It was widely reported in November 2020 that the Prime Minister had labelled Scottish devolution a “disaster”. Before and after this, there were a number of incidents revealing a less than dedicated attitude towards the Sewel Convention, not least during the passage of the UK Internal Market Act 2020, which arguably made substantial changes to the operation of devolved competences. Administrative leapfrogging is another facet to a slow and modest but discernible trend against devolution, towards central government.
My basic message is that this is an area to watch, whether one is supportive of the trend, opposed to it, or indifferent. It may have been one speech by one Secretary of State outlining no legislative agenda and no radical policy changes, but the speech still matters. It sets out an emerging political and constitutional vision of the relationship between central, devolved, and local government, as well as a vision of how the administration of central government would be reformed geographically in an attempt to foster political connections between central government and local communities. It was a speech which implicitly linked central government administrative activity to the achievement of broader constitutional objectives in relation to the union. And it provides an illustration of one part of a broader trend towards accumulating greater power and influence in central government ministers: the practice of administrative leapfrogging. For these reasons alone, the speech is worth a read.