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I never did work out the reason for the red ribbons which cascaded over the front door of Local Government House (L...
I never did work out the reason for the red ribbons which cascaded over the front door of Local Government House (LGC, 25 May). Perhaps the idea was for the Local Government Association leaders to step through them clutching the New Tablets for local government like, well, Old Testament prophets. Or perhaps Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart intended to emerge coyly like a Botticelli goddess fresh from the waves.

The red ribbons were in place for the launch of the LGA's 'vision' for local government and a photocall saw the party group leaders and Sir Sandy ceremoniously cutting through them.

With Sir Michael Lyons sketching out broad orientations for his eventual report, a new minister in place with a reputation to re-make and a prime minister in a hurry, the LGA's failure to set out its own goals would have looked like both a lack of confidence and a political missed trick.

In its report - Closer to people and places - the LGA is wisely concentrating on nitty-gritty issues. The case against centralised decision making is that it wastes public money because it fails to harness and focus local energies. With cash under Gordon Brown's expenditure review likely to be very tight indeed, efficiency and value-for-money will be key arguments. Agreeing a small number of key outcomes to replace the plethora of targets and performance indicators is giving form to a growing political mood.

So, too, is the recognition of the need to up the economic performance of Britain's great cities, which lack both the personality and power of their continental counterparts. The demand for the devolution of powers over transport, planning, economic development and skills is actually much more modest than it sounds at first reading since much of this has already been regionalised and would have fallen under the sway of the directly-elected regional assemblies had they ever come into existence.

But this is where the LGA needs to do some more work. If it wants to dismantle the growing regional bureaucracies put in place by a government which seems obsessed with increasing in scale it should say so. If I were the directly-elected mayor of Leeds, or Manchester or Liverpool or Birmingham the first thing I would want is control of the police - without that I could not respond to the growing public concern about security. But this would inevitably collide head-first with the government's determination to build a police structure with the 'capacity' to deal with serious crime. Community empowerment and partnership projects are not going to solve that conundrum.

The LGA programme is sensibly pragmatic about finance. I sense that business is not ready to die in the last ditch to maintain the nationalised business rate. The LGA suggests an index to inflation to reassure companies that councils will not abuse their recovered freedom.

I think this is the wrong mechanism: if inflation is defined as the retail price index then the only consequence of indexation will be the continued decline of the relative contribution business rates make to local government. If the inflation rate is some fancy calculation like local government inflation, then business will smell a rat. Why not a simple link to council tax?

How will all this be received at the Department for Communities & Local Government? At least the new ministerial team will have plenty of accessible advice: Mr Ruth Kelly - Derek Gadd - is principal programme officer in the corporate strategy & performance section of the Association of London Government; and Mr Yvette Cooper - Ed Balls, aka Gordon Brown's vicar on earth - is economic secretary to the Treasury.

The post-Prescott department has been all but purged of ministerial males. Meg Munn, Angela Smith and Baroness Andrews join Kelly and Yvette Cooper, leaving Phil Woolas as the token man. The change from Prescott's bravado and glorious grammatical improvisations to Kelly's meticulous pedagogies could hardly be more dramatic.

Ruth Kelly is bright - hyper-bright. The analytical demands of the Treasury fitted her intellectual strengths whereas she never looked at ease at education where the issues define the political soul of much of the Labour Party. Now she has the chance to pull percentages and people together.

But, of course, we are waiting for Lyons and for Gordon.

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