The Week

The Week 3 May 2024

India Woodward
Senior Events and Fundraising Officer

Yesterday saw an exciting milestone for the devolution agenda with the largest-ever electoral ‘moment’ for localities with devolved powers. Come Saturday, the nation will boast three new mayors in the North East, York and North Yorkshire and the East Midlands.

Elsewhere, particularly in the West Midlands, North East, and Tees Valley, the significance of the relationship between a mayor and their Party is being closely watched. Ben Houchen’s win today in Tees Valley suggests regional leadership can be a source of authority that is distinct from national party politics. That said, stubbornly low turnout across the board also suggests that there is still much to do to close the ‘democratic deficit’ that afflicts local systems.

With the significance of mayors increasing, it is important to continuously assess the nature of these regional figures and their relationship with central government. In an LSE blog published this week, Paul Anderson points out that “despite (mayors’) extensive responsibilities, there is no official channel of exchange between the mayors and central government”. Currently, the crucial relationship between government and regional authorities is ad-hoc and varies from department to department.

Anderson suggests filling this gap with the creation of a mayoral-ministerial standing committee. Formalising the relationship in this way would lead to more constructive collaboration and increase Whitehall’s understanding of the local issues it can otherwise be so distant from. While a standing committee would not address the root of the problem — that is, the overcentralised nature of power in England — improving knowledge and communication between the regions and the centre would evidently be a good idea.

Improving that local-central information flow could have big implications for flagship government policies. Earlier in the week, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, compared the Government’s ‘levelling up’ policy to a “half-built cathedral”, his point being that the policy is geared towards long-term, structural change that will reap rewards in the long run.

The Levelling Up White Paper set itself the target of achieving its many ‘missions’ by 2030, and Gove still points to this as a reasonable timeframe to be looking for impact from the policy. Back when the White Paper was written, perhaps continuous Conservative Government through to 2030 was deemed a likelihood. The ultimate lesson here is that big missions require time to work, and will often outlive the administration that initiates them: a massive challenge for governance continuity, and one of the factors considered in our recent report on achieving mission government.

This week, Labour confirmed that they would be moving on from the language of levelling up to distance themselves from the mixed legacy of the policy. At Reform we want to hear less about what the policy will be called and more about what, if anything, Labour will do differently if they are called upon to complete Gove’s “cathedral”.

One example is Labour’s 5-point plan for rebuilding the high streets. The rise of online retail, alongside the effects of the pandemic, has changed consumer habits, leaving high streets across the country hollowed out. In this long read, John P. Houghton rejects the notion of saving the high street as we know it today and asserts that we must accept  the end of the “traditional model of mass-market goods and services being sold in physical spaces in urban centres”, and allow them to  become hubs for community life instead — an intriguing prospect.

As the local elections play out this weekend, Reform will be delving into the policy implications of our expanding tier of regional governance and the changing circumstances for councils. Join us online on the 13th of May to discuss this with Laura Shoaf, Chief Executive of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Heather Jameson, Editor of The Municipal Journal, and Keiran Pedley from Ipsos UK. Email events@reform.uk to sign up.

And our read of the week…

This blog by James O’Malley captures the productivity potential of AI when applied smartly, and resonates with our roundtable this week with Dr Laura Gilbert, Chief Analyst and Director of Data Science at 10 Downing Street. O’Malley deep dives into a TfL AI experiment which sought to increase capacity in London tube stations and push more passengers through faster – a notion which would appeal to the fast-paced march of Londoners on a weekday (or any day). The application of AI in question would cost very little and require modest interventions – especially compared to alternative approaches.