29 April 2020

Local government can play a crucial role in coronavirus community testing

The government may have belatedly started to realise the importance of community testing and contact tracing – but they run the risk of again being slow to realise the crucial role local government could play.

Like many others who have served in local and regional government, I am no stranger to frustration at Whitehall’s centralising instincts.

When I was Deputy Mayor for Housing in London, it was one of many frustrations that applications by councils to license rented properties in their local areas, for example, had to be individually approved by the Secretary of State. The extreme centralisation of such a local decision caused significant delays, saw decisions made that ignored the local context, and limited the ability for negotiation.

The importance of challenging this centralising bias of central government has taken on a new urgency during the Covid-19 outbreak. We heard over the weekend about the appalling failings of the government’s shielding helpline, set up as a national scheme distant from communities needing help. As Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Steve Reed said, a scheme better integrated with local support and local understanding would have helped to avoid these mistakes being made.

The clear benefits of local government being involved can be seen in the delivery of food parcels. The national food box scheme, whilst welcome, can involve items being sent out that are poorly suited to the needs of a local household. There is also no provision to flex its strict eligibility criteria – I was unable a couple of weeks ago to get a 96-year-old housebound man onto the national register.

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