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The localist resistance must seek to declaw the beast of centralism

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 A guest briefing on the case for post-Brexit localism

Forecasting anything at the start of the year is a mug’s game. A welter of pundit predictions and questions to which the answer is invariably no. And for which soothsayers will never be held to account over the course of the year in any case.

But for those interested in place-based policy, what, if anything, can we remain confidently sure of in the year of uncertainty?

In a world where we can’t depend on much, the much-anticipated devolution framework will, we hope, usher in a refreshingly neo-localist revival of a stalled programme to transfer powers and responsibilities where they belong. If we can’t simply bring it back by default, then earning it back in a style reminiscent of the Public Service Agreements might be a ‘90s revival worth singing for.

The fear is not that anybody should take seriously loose talk of creating Whitehall super-ministries. This surely is a forlorn triumph of hope over experience, one waiting to be discovered by anyone unversed in another echo from the playlist early years of the Blair administration, the four-letter acronym that was DETR.

Instead, the fear has to be the ‘as is’ of the status quo being regarded as remotely good enough for meeting the needs of our localities during a time of great social and economic upheaval. Returning to a failed centralist command and control system, one built to stifle any promise of fiscal and economic devolution, is by no means what leave voters understood by taking back control.

For this reason, the localist resistance must seek to defang and declaw the beast of centralism. At Localis, we are using the nation’s anticipated departure from the European Union to restate, with courage and conviction, the unarguable case for maximum local control of economy, trade and public services, and with the accompanying political and fiscal freedoms to sustain this.

For champions of localism, Brexit of whatever flavour, presents a priceless once-in-a-generation opportunity to reconfigure the political economy and overturn the predominant centralist mindset.

Indeed, it would be a betrayal of those who voted to leave the EU were controls and responsibilities vested in Brussels to be simply transferred wholesale to the equally remote Whitehall empire.

A full scale Spending Review is promised for the first half of this year. The funding boost granted to the health service, and adumbrated in the publication this week of the NHS long-term plan, more or less plots the trajectory of non-protected government expenditure.

There again, if the lesson from history is that there is little electoral credit accruing to governments whose chancellors won’t untie the purse strings, we might see a bit more headroom.

A few helpful despatch box white rabbits will doubtlessly be pulled out of the hat for us to pore over in the Treasury Red Book. Given what we know, these bunnies won’t be enough to take the sustainability of local finances off the agenda.

And with further delay piling on delay to getting any answers to social care funding, other equally severe demand pressures - the need to deliver on housing promises, addressing cultural change and the perils of staying in the saddle of the entrepreneurial horse - the sector will clearly remain at risk of failure.

So there will be questions to be posed for local governance. Getting onto the front foot, we want to understand how local systems can play a more prominent role in reducing the risk and the need for intervention – an exercise Localis will be jointly undertaking with the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

A final forecast. Now that colleagues are back at work, it’s a safe bet that many among them seeking the royal road to self-reform and improvement through Dry Veganuary will, before March is out, be found slumped over a bottle of boutique gin, ingesting a truffle-infused burger of the ‘dirty’ variety.

I predict a diet – but I don’t expect it to succeed.

Jonathan Werran, chief executive, Localis

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