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Jonathan Werran: Lay Brexit aside – place should be the focus

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If April’s a cruel old month for mixing memory and desire, this May’s elections threaten unusual tortures for local political leaders.

As of writing, the fog of Brexit uncertainty is as unforgivably thick as ever, and only getting denser. Speculation mounts on the likelihood of a general election and the necessity of holding European elections – purely to keep the show of kicking the can down the road on the road.

The electoral penalty for banging on about Europe has historically been plummeting fortunes for the Conservatives in local polls. After the UK’s ignominious exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism after Black Wednesday in September 1992 there was no post-poll tax relief for John Major’s local footsoldiers – just kicking after kicking until 1997. By then things could only get better, as the sub-basement floor had been breached.

The polar choice of a botched Brexit or no deal suggest even money on a similar loss of ballots for the blue vote this time, even if voters wish a plague on all their houses.

For some Labour leaders in larger towns and cities there’s the probable, bitter threat of defenestration over ideological purity, the recent examples of Newcastle City Council leader Nick Forbes’s failure to become Labour’s North of Tyne mayoral candidate, and the departure of Nottingham’s longstanding leader Jon Collins (Lab) indicating a direction.

Even so, if the last three years have – slowly – determined what the people want, hopefully local leaders can rise to the challenge. The salient questions, as always, are how strong local leadership is in a place and whether leaders are up to collaborative governance in all its varied contexts.

For instance, does the charismatic leadership that can win favour and secure growth and infrastructure gifts on pilgrimages to Whitehall and Westminster also secure investment from hard-headed international business chiefs?

The growing concern around the financial sustainability of the local state among firms seeking to site business activities is now a moot point for chief secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss to consider in her spending review deliberations. We might claim a council can’t go bust on the scale of Detroit, and must balance its budget, but you’d be surprised at what global finance has learned about UK local government finance.

Regional rebalancing will of course require a radical transfer of powers and budgets from the centre, and sufficient fiscal freedom – regardless of the Brexit deal struck. But it seems localism is enjoying a burst of rude health in the crucible of Brexit.

A singular pleasure of running a neo-localist think tank is that almost everyone I meet, of all political persuasions, claims to be a radical localist.

It’s safe to doubt whether this is always from heartfelt conviction or conversion. One suspects some protestations are made in the manner of comedian Steve Coogan’s less loved creation Paul Calf, who would claim to be a radical feminist for ulterior motives.

However the tumbling dice land in May, our local leaders must find the boldness, resilience and empathy to win the understanding necessary to re-inspire place-making.

That they must do so in the headwinds of adversity and a rather rotten, out of touch and centralist state is nothing new – though it will be a new starting point for the Dorset unitaries. They must summon genuine support from whatever corners they can, but ultimately play to the inherent strengths of place and people.

This point was recently made by the Financial Times’ esteemed columnist Martin Wolf, who noted that the localist reality belies an apparent shift to a hyperglobal economic marketplace. The skills on which advanced businesses and economies depend are embedded in networks of people who live in specific locations, rendering companies far more immobile than we’d think.

The trick for our strategic authorities will be to ensure the relevant skills and knowledge their labour forces possess are the right ones. Where skilled people are present, businesses will locate and cluster. And vice versa.

If any good comes out of the Brexit water-torture endured over the last three years, it will be through a new understanding of the kind of economic system that has popular local support, and can translate into prosperous communities and productive places.

Jonathan Werran, chief executive, Localis

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