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FEATURES - LOCALISM GETS CHIC

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Autumn is such a social whirl, isn't it? Depending on your tastes, you can set off on the circuit - fashion weeks i...
Autumn is such a social whirl, isn't it? Depending on your tastes, you can set off on the circuit - fashion weeks in London, Paris, New York or, for the more sartorially challenged, the party conference trail of Brighton, Blackpool, Bournemouth. Glamour is back - and so are public services.

Patrick Wintour is The Guardian's chief political correspondent and brother of Anna, editor of American Vogue, so capable of spotting a trend or two. 'The true significance of the 2002 conferences lay in the death of the centrally planned welfare state established in 1945,' he wrote, heralding the arrival of what has been termed 'new localism'.

Tony Blair announced the end of a one-size-fits-all approach to public services, promoting the enabling state with his model of foundation hospitals, free from the stifling grip of Whitehall. He reckoned without chancellor Gordon Brown, who, according to the Daily Telegraph, rapidly dismissed all these 'fancy ideas' about government borrowing.

The PM was forced to intervene in an unseemly spat between the chancellor and health minister Alan Milburn over exactly how much freedom foundation hospitals will have. Eventually he forced the pair to make up in public, which they did with all the sincerity of supermodels air-kissing backstage at a Versace show.

Shortly afterwards, I woke up to a voice on the Today programme telling me the chancellor was considering granting spending freedoms to top-performing councils. Strangely, I could find little reference to this in the rest of the media and concluded it was a dream, a bit like like being offered haute couture then waking up to the threadbare old overcoat you've had for 10 years.

Meanwhile, the Tories were getting a makeover. New localism was on show in Bournemouth too. But was anyone convinced?

Former Cosmopolitan editor Marcelle D'Argy Smith decided IDS stood for 'ill-designed suit'. Boris Johnson in the Telegraph commented that Marks & Spencer recovered by transforming its stock, not simply changing the lighting in its shops. Fellow columnist Rachel Sylvester said IDS 'has to seek out his version of Agent Provocateur lingerie, then test and retest the product to make sure the elastic is sound'. As we were all being reminded about John Major's underpants at the time, this was not an appealing prospect.

The focus on new localism was down to those streetwise boys in the think-tanks. But there is a difference between fashionable ideas and reality. As well as the very public Brown/Milburn battle, the rhetoric was undermined by education secretary Estelle Morris intervening in the row over two boys excluded from school for making death threats against

a teacher.

I tend to agree with the Observer, which in an editorial pointed out 'if all the politicians who call for localism and decentralisation were also required to promise not to criticise and share in the national argument, this new panacea would have a very short shelf life indeed'.

Is new localism here to stay, or will it turn out to be this year's puffball skirt?

Carol Grant

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