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Tony Travers: The centre still hoards power despite a track record of failure

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One of the main reasons given by national politicians and officials for Britain’s hyper-centralisation is that local government cannot be trusted to balance the books or manage large projects. 

This is never stated publicly, of course. But it must be true. Otherwise there would be less resistance to proposals for devolution within England, Scotland and Wales.

Despite the fact the UK government has overseen national debt growing by over £900bn since 2008-09, with deficits as high as £150bn in a single year, it is town halls which are seen as profligate.

The deficit was going to be eradicated by 2015, then 2020, and now at some point during the 2020s. The previous chancellor set a welfare cap which has also been busted. Targets for fiscal rectitude come and go, but the public finances remain in deep trouble. Yet every year councils balance their books.

Then there is Whitehall’s desperate management of projects. One of the more striking recent revelations was that the Ministry of Defence has bought destroyers that will not function in warm water. The same department’s procurement policy has left the UK without an aircraft carrier.

In fairness to the MoD, other departments have recently achieved similarly dreadful outcomes. Courtesy of the National Audit Office, we are fed a regular diet of disasters such as failed NHS computer systems, and the infamous fire and rescue control centres. The government’s procurement of the latter was described in the following terms by the public accounts committee: “The contract itself was poorly designed and awarded to a company without relevant experience. The computer system was simply never delivered. No one has been held to account for this project failure”.

There are many more. Failure and/or farce affecting the issue of passports, the Rural Payments Agency, the re-franchising of the West Coast Main Line, prisons and the ongoing saga of universal credit all attest to the limitations of central government and its agencies.

But still power is hoarded at the centre. It never appears to occur to those in control within government that over-centralisation undermines management and delivery. Perhaps the newish government will see the light and make 2017 a year of real devolution. Perhaps.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Not too sure that local government necessarily has a brilliant track record either when it comes to effective major project delivery. Whether in central or local government there is often generally poor accountability for managing/delivering major change - I'm not sure that devolution schemes in their current form changes that?

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