30th June 2020

Away from Westminster

Jason Lowther, Director of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham, discusses the long-term implications of COVID-19 on funding, and the problems of adopting a centralised approach to the crisis.


By JTS Staff
Journal of Trading Standards' in-house team
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There are major issues with the availability of suitable protective equipment for a range of public servants which need to be addressed urgently and sustained in the long term.

Austerity has clearly had a detrimental impact on local government resources over the past decade. Do you think COVID-19 will further hit funding of local government services such as trading standards?

In the short term, central government has gone some way to recognise the additional cost impact which COVID-19 is having on local government, although the reported comments of the Secretary of State [Robert Jenrick] that councils will be expected to share the extra costs are worrying. In the longer term, government needs to recognise that local governments (particularly in deprived areas) have borne far more than their fair share of spending cuts during the decade of austerity, and as a result essential and preventative services have already been reduced too far.

There are already disparities between councils in terms of funding. Can you see this being exacerbated by the crisis? Will regions with higher rates of infection bear the brunt?

It’s difficult at this point for government to know what the extra costs of COVID-19 have been and will be on different councils. We know rates of infection appear higher in large cities and in some disadvantaged groups, so that may well lead to higher financial burdens for certain councils. Councils have worked hard to provide data to government on the costs they have faced so far – if that is used sensibly it should help ensure the additional funds are appropriately targeted.

The crisis has dramatically changed the ways in which many of us work, with an increase in remote working and greater use of conferencing technology. Do you think this will have a long-term effect on local government working practices?

It’s been incredible how changes to working practices that would usually take years were delivered in days. We’ve noticed this across a range of other activities too, from partnership working and voluntary community activity, through to changes in road space use. Which of these will represent a new ‘COVID-19-era normal’, will depend on the ambition of local areas and whether England’s usual over-centralised approach to governing reasserts itself. There have been some worrying examples of centralised control as the preferred working approach when it comes to things like testing and provision of PPE, even when it’s patently ineffective and wasting resources. We need to challenge this and take the opportunity to push for new more devolved and localised ways of working and governing. One thing that clearly emerges is that central systems of command and control are not delivering. Responses could have been more nimble if there had been more freedom (and funding) to go ahead with local approaches.

Are there any particular consumer protection challenges that you can see arising from businesses being forced to adapt to the ‘new normal’?

Trading standards have been doing a brilliant job so far: warning the public of scams operating during the epidemic, providing expert guidance on key issues like PPE products, helping consumers affected by cancellations, and so on. As the lockdown arrangements begin to be loosened, trading standards may have an important role in helping businesses to trade safely and legally in a rapidly changing situation. Trading standards and associated departments (such as environmental health) have skills which could be well-suited to contact tracing for example, which will be critical in future.

What measures have you seen being put in place by local councils to protect their front-line workers – including trading standards and enforcement officers – from contracting the virus?

Councils have worked hard to think through the risks facing their staff, and to provide appropriate advice and equipment. However, there are major issues with the availability of suitable protective equipment for a range of public servants which need to be addressed urgently and sustained in the long term.

Can you see any other ways in which the expertise of trading standards officers could be used in the fight against coronavirus, or indeed any future pandemic? There is a wealth of knowledge around scrutiny of the supply chain and animal welfare practices, for example.

As mentioned, it’s clear that contact tracing will be important if we are safely to open up economic and social activity. We know that specific public health resource in this area is limited, so it would make sense to explore whether other experienced and skilled staff groups could contribute effectively to this task – it seems likely that some trading standards officers may be particularly skilled in this area. It’s not yet clear in detail how this will work, and how effectively national systems will link  with local ones. But it’s great that local Directors of Public Health have recently been given the lead role here.