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Tory conference: how funding questions cloud localism's sunny uplands

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A guest briefing analysing the Conservative conference from Jonathan Werran, chief executive of Localis.

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Birmingham is in its party conference lockdown. It seems like Conservative party central in the confines of the crowded and bibulous corridors of the Hyatt Regency. But outside the International Conference Centre, regulars judge it’s not quite business as usual. More anxiety and gloaming than fear and loathing in Birmingham this year.

This is of course a conference mired in the convulsions of Brexit, in whatever shape of form it finally, lands – but which the party grassroots are firmly enamoured of. There’s also the by now traditional beauty parade and jostling for position in the race to succeed the prime minister.

Local government rarely dominates as a sector or an issue at conference. Aside from housebuilding announcements, the policy scope is generally too broad to stick by itself onto the media grid. George Osborne’s bombshell business rates announcement of 2015 was the exception that proved why this should be a rule. How’s that devolution revolution working for you, local government family?

But Brexit rightly dominates the thinking of Conservative councillors. The thinking being that it would be plainly ridiculous to abandon the embrace of the Brussels super-state only to allow power to revert the still quasi-imperial ambitions of Whitehall, and for dreams to founder at the dead hand of the Treasury.

There’s clearly a localist battle for radical reform to be fought and won as a direct response to Brexit. The question is how and on what terms in the aftermath of next March. Two fringe events Localis ran today brought some interesting noises off – sounds which in an ideal world would have gained some sort of listening at the conference plenaries.

Conservative ideas man George Freeman MP told our packed session organised for the Core Cities group that the promise made to those who voted for Brexit would be broken were Whitehall’s command and control mentality and stifling of devolution (both fiscal and economic) allowed to prevail. He argued that Brexit, the underlying causes and the process suggests the need for a reorganisation of Whitehall to put people and place at the forefront of public policy-making.

Whether his brave idea of reducing Whitehall to six departments armed with place-based directorates – a nice homage to the Local Government Association’s Rewiring Public Services agenda – would survive contact with reality is moot. But there’s certainly no space for a rapid modernisation of local public services on the traditional Whitehall model of command and control.

Given the political arithmetic of a government with no working majority and a system clogged with next March’s departure day, radical localism would require cross-party political leadership to overpower Whitehall’s strong and instinctive attachment to its own machinery.

Bristol City Council mayor Marvin Rees (Lab – yes, politicians have been making their way onto the fringe programme of rival parties’ conferences in recent years) argued that the “bid and beg model” of central/local relations would have to end. Urging a need to think in terms of “spheres of government” rather than “tiers of government”, Mr Rees claimed the assembling of the Core Cities with the M8 group of combined authority mayors would give a voice to a localist cry that an inwardly-focused Whitehall needs to listen to.

If Brexit is the wrong answer to the right question, the case for looking outwards at the level of place, in an age of ever rapid globalisation must factor in the bigger national and international context. Especially when dealing with ‘glocal’ issues of migration, security, public health, climate change and environment.

But as ever, the funding of local public services overshadows attempts to reach the bright sunny uplands of local empowerment.

Kent CC leader Paul Carter (Con) remarked that local government was feeling unloved as a sector. The review of local enterprise partnerships displayed an insulting lack of trust, one already mirrored by suspicions on local government’s ability to run its finances by a micro-managing Exchequer.

For LGA deputy chairman and Hillingdon LBC deputy, David Simmonds (Con), reform of local government finance remains more of a political than a technical challenge – for which fiscal devolution must be the answer.

We might hope to see more answers to the fixing of local government finances in the Halloween Budget set for 29 October or the spring spending review – by which time there could be more space and time for a structured and measured response to the by now more than well-rehearsed needs.

And the hope has to be that that the light at the end of the tunnel is a proper acknowledgment of needs – and not the HS2 high speed train with its possible £100bn price tag heading north towards Birmingham.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive for Localis – www.localis.org.uk

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