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OPINION - DAVID CURRY

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What policies are the Conservatives likely to develop for local government? We have, after all, got a bright new sh...
What policies are the Conservatives likely to develop for local government? We have, after all, got a bright new shadow local government minister - Caroline Spelman - with all the connections.

The Tories need to move policy forward from the rather skeletal structures of its election manifesto. Admittedly, the promise to halve council tax for pensioners went down well - it also had the great merit of being comprehensible.

At least it diverted attention from what was likely to be a pretty tough financial deal for local government from a Tory administration, given the priority spending pledges for health, education and defence. I do not like losing elections but I have to say one of the smaller compensations was not having to deliver the savings in the James report on public spending.

Of course the key upcoming issue is finance. If communities and local government minister David Miliband solves that issue, nothing else matters - and, if he fails to solve it, nothing else will matter either. We are all waiting for Sir Michael Lyons' review of the future of local government funding - which will not walk off the report straight into statute.

I still believe business rates ought to be returned to councils (neither equalisation nor building in safeguards against abusive increases call for rocket science) but I am pretty pessimistic. Even if the review recommends this, I suspect the government will not want to face the howl of outrage from the business organisations. The Tories are virtually certain to row in behind business. After all, we have irritated it so much recently it would take more than a modicum of courage not to look such a gift horse in the mouth.

Over the last Parliament, the Tories were eloquent about what they were against - regional assemblies, onerous inspection and, of course, the rise of council tax. They have done some solid work on housing, though without demonstrating how they would respond to Kate Barker's report on housing supply, against which I do not think they have made a plausible case.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are locked in the mentality of the centralised state - in the Tory case spending marginally less than Labour.

The party needs to draw its policies out of the logic of its electoral situation. It has nagged about the West Lothian question for long enough - how could a Labour government have legitimacy if it held a minority of seats in England?

Well, we are half way to realisation of that dilemma since the Tories won a majority of the vote in England, though it might be more accurate to say a majority of the vote south of a line between the Severn and the Wash. The party needs a strategy to get back into the cities and, to put it bluntly, get back into the suburbs of the big cities. But we also need a policy that responds to this dilemma without creating a separate English assembly.

I believe the party has a very clear and self-interested case to promote the creation of powerful autonomous cities with a strong political identity. This is much better than regional government which, in any case, is off the agenda. Yes, I would encourage them to elect mayors. I would give mayors much wider powers, starting with control of the police. If they want to play the tough cop that's fine - policing, especially of 'yob' disorder, was one of the most insistent complaints during the election campaign.

Of course, cities may not elect Tory mayors. The Tsarist regime of Russia was characterised as autocracy tempered by assassination: our big cities are frequently Labour dominance tempered by Liberal insurgency.

The Tories are spectators and need to be participants. Push local decision-making down to area bodies and enrol voluntary and faith bodies to deliver services to provide a wider scope for civic involvement and you begin to have the makings of Tory local democracy.

It means, of course, letting go at the centre. And it means getting funding sorted. Labour, I suspect, despite all the talk about delivery, will be ploddingly cautious. Will the Tories dare to be bold?

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