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Jonathan Werran: The polls brought churn – but stability is required

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Last Friday when the Conservatives were counting the cost of a local elections shellacking beyond their worst nightmare, the 40th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 general election breakthrough did not go unremarked.

For true believers, it was tragic, almost savagely so, to contrast the footage of a purposeful Iron Lady quoting the prayer of St Francis of Assisi before entering Number 10, with the parlous political state and condition of her less than steely successor.

We can wait until LGC’s Council Control Map hits our desks to grasp the visual situation. But with the loss of 1,330 councillors and with them control of 44 councils, the blue hegemony across much of shire England has been replaced with new colours – a big dash of yellow in the south and south west and a few speckles of red.

However, by far the biggest surge in governance change was the shift to a further 37 councils subject to no overall control, bringing the NOC total to 73 [or 79 using Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher’s methodology]. Echoing the New Romantic sounds of early Thatcher’s Britain with Visage’s one-hit-wonder, the map will be more of a “fade to grey”.

This dramatic increase in political churn, local coalition-making and contested leadership will have an impact. Judging by how the chips fell, we can expect to see in various places a retrenchment in housing and possibly not to the benefit of Marsham Street’s national new build targets. We can expect knock-on effects to local growth strategy and unknown changes to local public service delivery.

This is important. Localis’s forthcoming report ‘Hitting Reset – a case for local leadership’ examines the status of central/local relations and explores the challenges, opportunities and characteristics of effective place leadership.

It’s an issue that cuts both ways. For example, Sir Richard Leese (Lab), the leader of Manchester City Council, may have seen 18 housing ministers and 10 secretaries of state for communities and local government since 1996. But in seeking to maintain a grip on 350 local authorities, there are a lot of new relationships to be forged in a short space of time for an equally over-stretched and under-resourced centre.

From our extensive interviewing for the report, council leaders from parish to combined authority level wish to be treated with a greater sense of dignity, respect and active listening by central government.

On the other side, there is, at least as far as Whitehall views these things, a prima facie link between demonstrably strong, charismatic local leaders, who communicate the story of their locality and have a strong presence in negotiations with ministers and officials to the chances of striking place-based deals with central government.

There is no single technocratic answer to what is after all a matter of people dealing with people. There could, more probably, be merit in a ‘talking revolution’ of genuine dialogue and productive exchange. A case for national and local leaders having the courage and empathy to embark upon a transformation in the quality and depth of their relationships, leading to greater understanding to benefit communities and strengthen local economies.

Some work towards synchronising electoral cycles with spending review periods might be helpful towards this convergence. To support long-term financial planning, and with a nod towards the goal of greater fiscal freedom for local areas, Localis will make the case that councillors should be elected for minimum five-year terms to match the length of the current parliamentary term.

Furthermore, for the sake of political efficiency and clarity, local government elections should take place as a single election campaign. So please if we are to have a radical empowerment of locality, let’s not do it by halves. But at the same time, for everyone’s sake, maybe let’s not do it by thirds, either.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis

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