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OPINION - PHIL SWANN

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Drop the cynicism and let inspiration take hold ...
Drop the cynicism and let inspiration take hold

Those of you cynical towards the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister discussion paper, The future of local government: developing a 10-year vision, have an easy target.

Who can take seriously a document from government heralding a new relationship between central and local government, released in the same month every major department published a five-year strategy without consultation with local government?

The answer is that we all should. It is too easy to be cynical.

July's mess was caused by the absence of the kind of strategy the ODPM is looking to develop. Everyone who cares about local democracy should seize the opportunity it has created.

It is impossible to overstate the challenges in reaching cross-Whitehall agreement on a document such as this. But my guess is that ministers and officials working on the strategy are exasperated at the lack of imagination shown by local government.

It is time to be inspirational and to be inspired. In recent weeks, I have been heartened by two people at opposite ends of the age spectrum.

Who could fail to be inspired by Tristram Hunt's picture of 19th century civic pioneers in his book Rebuilding Jerusalem. Just think what autonomous councils could look like in 10 years' time.

Equally inspiring is Jane Jacobs. In 1961, her seminal book, The death and life of great American cities, challenged the massive redevelopment programmes that were squeezing the life out of vibrant communities.

The world changed. Thanks to Ms Jacobs' advocacy, today's Londoners enjoy Covent Garden and Coin Street. And there are similar examples in most European cities.

Over 40 years later, 88-year-old Ms Jacobs is still at it. She has published a new book, Dark age ahead. In it she highlights a new danger threatening the US, which will resonate with those who are struggling with the mixed messages that emerged from the UK government last month.

The threats, Ms Jacobs said, include the fact that old-fashioned scientific experimentation is crumbling under the weight of corporate and government demands for predetermined outcomes. Anyone involved in a government pilot or pathfinder will know what she means.

Asked whether people ignore her at their peril, Ms Jacobs said: 'Yes, in the sense that failing to do the right thing has consequences. I think I know what the right thing is, and what can't be ignored. If I were in doubt, I wouldn't write it.'

Local government minister Nick Raynsford has presented the proponents of empowered local politics with the opportunity to argue for the right thing. But are we up for it?

Phil Swann

Director of strategy & communications,

Local Government Association

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