Farewell mutterings 1: decentralised Britain

This October I’m moving back down under, to the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University, Brisbane. Over the next couple of months I’m going to post reflections on some of what I’ve learned in my 11 year stint in UK academia – reflections on the academy itself, on British politics and policy, and so on. I will be nice, promise.

"Please tell me they didn't redesign the form again..." Photo by IJNMis01 via Wikimedia Commons
“Please don’t tell me they redesigned the form again…” Photo by IJNMis01 via Wikimedia Commons

One often hears the claim in Britain that the country is too centralised, with too much power concentrated in London. I agree that London has too much power, but I don’t think that’s because the country is too centralised.

The UK is actually a collection of semi-autonomous localities, in which local elites manage all sorts of things that in most other countries are genuinely national. The health service is not a single service, but an insane patchwork of GP’s collectives, hospital trusts, ambulance managers, commissioning agencies, outsourced medicine delivery firms, patient groups, volunteer agencies, local worthies and so on, all different from place to place. There are some national, connecting bodies but they exert surprisingly little direct control, and when they do attempt such control they are resented, bitterly. Every hospital is its own little world, with its own forms, its own processes, its own ways of doing things that don’t fit neatly with those of the hospital just down the road, which can make referrals to other parts of the ‘national’ health service truly funny at times.

The same is largely true of education; policing; some welfare provision; roads; housing; even the military, to a more limited (and shrinking) extent.  Even the police, fire and ambulance services do not have matching areas of responsibility, with the result that an ambulance service might have two or three police services to engage with, or vice versa. Where I used to live in North Yorkshire, they didn’t even have common telecommunications abilities, so it is not unknown for the comms coordination to be done by (drumroll) the entirely volunteer and charity-funded Mountain Rescue. They were the only “blue light” agency that could talk to all the others.

Universities are not exempt. Departments are often decentralised little empires in which (some) academics and administrators jealously guard their right to reinvent the wheel every time a new problem arises, instead of asking how the department next door or other universities solved the same problem.

Decentralised systems have their benefits. They tend to be more responsive to their ‘customers’; they change more quickly and can foster innovation. Innovation can be overrated however. And with decentralisation comes administrative overload and a loss of economies of scale. It’s also the case that localities are not as different as we are led to believe. While I am prepared to believe that there really are important value differences between the North of England and the South East, I find it hard to believe that the entirely different health procedures between Ryedale and Harrogate (same bloody county!) are justified by some wild variation in what local people want from their public services. It’s just not true – what we want from our hospitals is more the same than it is different, but British culture excels at spotting and amplifying differences.

Decentralised systems are easier for networks of local elites to grab hold of and manage. They provide the glue which holds the system together. Not democratic accountability. Not impersonal principle. Networks of local elites. And that’s one of the reasons why conservatives love them. Why left-wing politicians also love them these days is more mysterious. There is a long tradition of leftie hostility to local elite networks, for good reasons, and New Labour’s embrace of ‘localism’ was muddled, to put it kindly.

And the reason why London dominates? Of course, it houses so many of the nation’s institutions and other countries with big, dominant cities have similar problems, problems which can be ameliorated by moving key national institutions out to other cities (as the BBC did with Salford a few years ago).

But it is also because it is the largest ‘locality’, made up of smaller, powerful localities in their own right. It makes decisions that concern London and Londoners. The institutions of the City, Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham and so on are barely able to register the life experiences of people outside because, for the most part, they were not designed to do so. And the periphery, fragmented into little principalities, lacks collective power to make effective challenges.

Britain is not too centralised, full stop. In many respects, for a great many institutions and services, it is too decentralised. And for a great many powerful people, that suits them just fine.

A paper I wrote on localism and democratic innovations appeared in the open-access journal The Good Society a few years ago, and is available for download. 

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