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FEATURES - GRANDSTAND VIEW IN CORRIDORS OF POWER

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Alan Whitehead talks to Varya Shaw about life as a junior minister and the demise of the DTLR ...
Alan Whitehead talks to Varya Shaw about life as a junior minister and the demise of the DTLR

Alan Whitehead has written a novel, as yet unpublished. The concept is a tad more intellectual than the Not a penny more, not a penny less genre. He describes it as 'the opposite of Back to the Future' because key historical figures are replaced but nothing changes.

He can be forgiven a little pessimism about the forces of history, given the way in which he lost his post as junior minister at the now defunct DTLR.

It is some time ago now since Stephen Byers went through his painfully drawn-out dive into obscurity. In the ensuing reshuffle, the functions of the DTLR were passed onto the ODPM. As a result Dr Whitehead, who had a valuable dual perspective from his time as leader of Southampton City Council, lost his job.

So what was it like on 'the other side' for the 12 months he was there? Did he have real power?

Dr Whitehead is a born analyser and he gives a meditative, thinking-aloud sort of answer. 'You look

like you have got a lot of power. It is a public assumption that you have. It is a sort of power, it's a network of power and you're a small branch station in that network if

you're a junior minister. I am not underestimating the

fact that you have some power but it is pretty diffuse

to be honest.'

The furthest he will go is to admit 'you dot the 'i's and cross the 't's in a very powerful way'.

Council leaders can take heart: 'Actually you have probably got less power than a junior minister in certain things than you have got as a council leader. If you are the leader of a council you can do a lot of things in a lot of areas in a way you can't really do as a minister.'

Did he learn new things? 'The health of local government is far, far more important to the government's delivery programme, the health of the government and the political process in the broader sense of the word even than I had previously estimated - and I had always been a person who regards local government as part of high politics rather than low politics.'

If this perception seemed to make headway under

Mr Byers, will Mr Prescott keep the flame alive?

Dr Whitehead comments: 'I do have a concern that actually having a whole range of things which are subsumed in the deputy prime minister's department potentially buries local government away.

'The danger is that people will think [local government is] in a backwater. Alternatively you could say you have got somebody right at the heart of cabinet with precisely that co-ordinating clout that the Office of Public Service Reform [was looking for].'

He does not see the findings of the notorious OPSR investigation - that Whitehall was not prepared to deliver on last autumn's local government white paper - as very significant. With so many departments doing so many different local government-related things, 'the idea that the DTLR which has to negotiate those arrangements could have the strategic capacity to oversee the lot ofit is a fiction really'.

He adds: 'You either put everything together in one department so you've got a superdepartment of local government which runs everything, or you have a method by which those various inputs can be regulated and made to work together.'

Despite progress under Mr Byers, Dr Whitehead feels there must be a fundamental change in the way central government deals with local government: 'There is a long way to go to making the phrase 'joined-up government' a reality. It is about reshaping the centre.'

Contradicting his initial account of his novel somewhat, he adds: 'That is what my novel is about as well - if you change one element of history the whole of history logically has to change.

'For example, on the one hand they say 'you must engage the community and listen very carefully to what it says'. Number two, they say 'and by the way you must have these targets you must adhere to and we will expect you to carry them out by x date on x basis using x amount of money for z result'.

'The two are not compatible. The very fact you have discussed what should happen with the community means your targets will change and if they don't you haven't listened to the community.

'If you're saying [to local government] build capacity, enable, make the thing work, then you have got to change your own working practices as well in terms of how you look at that back in the centre. You could say, physician, heal thyself.'

The media pursuit of Mr Byers, as far as the

11 September e-mail went, seemed to Dr Whitehead pretty gratuitous: 'It was spun and respun as a charge sheet against Stephen Byers by certain people. When

you looked down the substance of the charge sheet it

was all actually the same thing repackaged in different ways.'

The DTLR's demise was clearly maddening: 'I have to say the wall-to-wall headlines about department in crisis annoyed me yet there was an oasis of calm in that particular area.

'You had a number of ministers who were knowledgeable of and sympathetic of the concerns of local government. They also personally worked well together.'

Losing his job clearly was not the best experience: 'I wasn't very happy about it. I'm reluctant to say too much about that.'

But in typical Whitehead fashion he has an analysis at the ready: 'In a sense, if you become a minister, then that's how the system works. You can hardly, having replaced someone at a day's notice, complain about the fact that you are then in turn replaced at a day's notice. That's the contract you undertake.'

Does he hope to get back into government? 'Want . . . oh yeah sure.' He is not so sure about hope. In a fascinating vignette of life inside the Commons, he explains. 'There is absolutely a sense that if you hang around this place expecting something to happen you'll end up a very sad individual.

'The point about Parliament and being an MP is there isn't a job description. Your career, to outside eyes, can often go up and down for no apparent reason.

'An awful lot of what happens in this house is all about grandstanding, look at me, I am the person you ought to notice on this or that matter. Sometimes they are drawing attention to something they have done of great substance. Other times it is of no substance at all. As an MP, you should do things of substance in an area which you are interested in.

'There isn't a formula that gets you preferment. What was sad about one or two people in this Parliament and the last was they put an enormous amount of effort into this grandstanding and nothing happened. That's when people think 'why have I been doing all this?''

It is a worrying picture of the hollowness of many political careers - and it adds to the feeling that it is both central and local government's loss that there are not more people like Dr Whitehead in office.

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