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Back to the future

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An LGC briefing on the government’s industrial strategy.

Today’s social care warning: Interview: Cutting capacity to deal with complaints a ‘false economy’

Today’s reorganisation rumblings: Five districts ready merger plans

Today’s devolution update: Greater Cheshire devo discussions to be revived

It was all going so well. Most of local government would surely have been pleasantly surprised by the tenor of prime minister Theresa May’s new green paper on industrial strategy

There was a pervasive positive tone towards localism in Building our Industrial Strategy – perhaps reflecting the part-authorship of business secretary Greg Clark, formerly a pro-devolution communities secretary – and several admissions that decisions on economic and infrastructure issues had been too centralised and failed to delivered notable success.

Then came possibly the single most bizarre proposal seen for decades in local government – the return of aldermen.

Few now will recall what an alderman was (except in the City of London Corporation, which as ever does things its own way).

Aldermen were abolished in 1973; until when the history books say they had been unelected but voting members of councils – usually long-serving former councillors. The system could be, and was, used to skew political balances.

The green paper proposes, without further elaboration, ‘modern aldermen’ in the context of ministers working “with local government to review how to bring more business expertise into local government”.

It is perhaps significant that LGC’s enquires suggest neither the Department for Communities & Local Government, nor the Local Government Association, nor anyone else, has the slightest idea what a modern alderman might be and do.

There might be a case for them as glorified advisers on industry. But having non-elected members of a council would be a big step away from contemporary standards of democracy, unless one takes the House of Lords as a model.

This curious issue apart, the green paper strikes welcome notes. It points to regional wealth imbalances greater than in competitor nations that “hold back the country’s growth and limit opportunities for too many people”.

In language not normally heard from Whitehall, it goes on: “We should confront the fact that our economy is one of the most centralised in the world, with institutions that are often too fragmented to provide the most effective leadership in shaping successful places.

“Evidence and experience suggests that strong, streamlined, decentralised governance can improve economic decision-making and spur innovation and productivity gains.”

What is more, “a historic lack of clear long-term thinking in the government’s approach”, has led to disjointed infrastructure provision and a “lack of joined-up policies to meet local needs”. Who would have thought it?

So, local government may get a substantial role in driving the country’s industrial base after all. But just as the price of devolution has been elected mayors, will the price of this be unelected aldermen?






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