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Jonathan Werran: localists must constantly self-challenge

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For supreme allied commander, General Dwight D Eisenhower, upon whom ultimate responsibility for D-Day lay, plans were worthless, but planning was everything.

For our localities, long-term planning is hostage to the national political catastrophe and the speculation industry it has engendered: a mug’s game in seeking answers to such questions as what comes first, the referendum or the general election?

Conditioned as we have become to the ‘not normal’ pervading our political, economic and social life, it’s tempting to imagine a return to the sunlit uplands of certainty – where a spending review process might be affixed to an exchequer wall with something more adhesive than jelly, or a long-awaited green paper on the future of social care funding published within three years of its announcement.

If, as seems as likely as any scenario, an early general election is called to break the Westminster impasse, what shovel-ready policies await being cut and pasted into the all- important local government section of the party manifestos?

If we are working to the belief system that there is no such thing as a magic money tree, then the NHS’s prior claim on promised public spending largesse would, more or less plot the trajectory on the expenditure graphs for unprotected areas and write the script of local public services until 2030.

In this scenario, any bold yet realistic localist manifesto commitments are, therefore, quite likely to be fiscally neutral and lacking in immediate popular appeal. These constraints aren’t in themselves a bad thing, a lot of value can be created within limitations.

We are always seeking a game-changing ploy, such as the right-to-buy pledge in the 1979 Conservative programme, a policy that was itself pinched from Labour’s 1959 manifesto. The risk is some form of lowest common denominator policy – eye-catching initiatives which don’t cost a penny but don’t change a damn thing. In this respect, the perceived insult in last week’s government call for areas to bid for the chance to reuse Pacer carriages as community halls heralds that this is more than the age of the train.

On the other side of the scales, Conservative leadership candidates, with a little help from in-house policy shops, are now happy to discuss turning on all the taps in an overflowing bath to end the age of austerity.

While nobody would churlishly refuse the promise of an immediate cash injection, the roadmap to a genuine localist reform programme, of the type Localis outlined in our Hitting Reset report and by the 2070 Commission, requires long-term vision and funding. Our arguments for a royal commission into how local government is resourced and a democratically accountable British Investment Bank to take up the slack in adroitly directing European levels of funding won’t be seen by policy crafters as having immediate and popular appeal.

And they would be correct. Although a well-planned institutional transformation of local authorities, central government and civic partners alike would be the right policy medicine, so that questions of scale and accountability might be addressed, it’s not going to be electoral catnip or offer a big retail offer to prospective voters.

We are talking about a properly funded process in our localities that will in all possibility span more than a single parliamentary term. As localist advocates, there’s the need to pass the Mandy Rice-Davis test of: ‘They would say that anyway.’

And indeed, when it comes to decentralisation, it is important to guard against professed localism that makes a priori assumptions about the inherent democratic preferability of the local. We can’t afford to be paying mere lip-service and ignoring the tricky issue of scale, sense of identity and degree of genuine community engagement.

If a more truly democratic country is to be built after the resolution of Brexit, localists must constantly self-challenge the value and power of local democracy and question, in each instance what is happening on the ground. When it comes to delivery of local services, the question will be which communities would benefit and at what level of power and across what boundaries power should be transferred.

This will be Localis’s 3-D vision for the future of place: decentralisation, democratisation and delivery. There is, never was and never will be any ‘magic bullet’ in this long battle to realise the dignity and potential of place, but as General Eisenhower wrote in his order of battle for 6 June 1944, “we will accept nothing less than full victory”.

Jonathan Werran, chief executive, Localis

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It's time for unitaries. Such a quick win, shovel ready policy that would save billions and enable further devolution.

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