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Mr Pickles' new regionalism

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In Robert Bolt’s Man for all Seasons, Thomas More is portrayed as a man who remains true to himself and his beliefs under all circumstances and at all times. And, superficially, it appears that the mantle of Mr More is nowhere more evident in the coalition government than in the secretary of state for communities and local government - Eric Pickles.

Mr Pickles announced his priorities on entering government as “localism, localism and localism”, adding that “we may not deliver our priorities in that order “. His first acts included the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies and the announcement of a Decentralisation and Localism Bill to replace RDAs with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs).

More recently, the intention to terminate Government Offices in the Regions has been announced, together with the abolition of the Audit Commission - both justified as liberating localities from a centralist command and control bureaucracy.

The 56 outline proposals for LEPs have been submitted to ministers and have been broadly welcomed by Mr Pickles. He said the “secret to the success” of the LEPs would be the fact that they would be “working on the basis of (real) local economic geography”. “Gone are the artificial political regions of RDAs - this will better serve the needs of local business,” he said.

Mr Pickles will no doubt have particularly welcomed the proposal for a Kent and Greater Essex LEP. Indeed, as reported in LGC, he actively intervened to push Kent, Essex and neighbouring councils together to form this ‘super LEP’.

The Kent and Greater Essex ‘local economic geography’ is striking. With a population of 3.4 million, 115,000 businesses, and the support of 20 local authorities (although apparently not eight Kent district councils and unitary Medway), this ‘local’ partnership couples Tendring’s deprivation with Tunbridge Wells’ affluence (almost 100 miles to the south); it links the minister’s own constituency in the London commuter belt of Brentwood, with the challenges of seaside decline in Broadstairs.

But the Kent and Greater Essex proposal to collaborate on strategic economic leadership for this large area runs the risk of creating new barriers to coherent local economies. Whilst this LEP manages to straddle the Thames, it fails to cross the rather more modest Stour - thus separating Harwich port from its owners anchored at (the much larger) Felixstowe port a couple of miles away; and Colchester from its work with Ipswich in the Haven Gateway economy. Similarly, affluent West Kent looks East to its less successful neighbours, rather than West to its shared characteristics with Surrey’s commuter belt and the economic driver of Gatwick and its major business cluster.

Of course, Kent and Greater Essex do share challenges - relationship to London, relative and sustained economic underperformance compared to its neighbouring counties, transport and skills ‘deficits’ to name a few. But these challenges, championed by Kent and Essex County Councils under the previous government, as part of their “county region” model, are clearly not of a localist character.

This economy is much larger than that of the North East (where Mr Pickles has actively discouraged a regional LEP). When the Kent and Greater Essex proposal proudly asserts national contributions that are “greater than the Leeds and Manchester City Regions combined”, it rather misses the point that these adjacent city regions have actually submitted separate LEP proposals - they have not proposed a new trans-Pennine ‘region’. Indeed, the notion of this super-LEP (effectively a new region) was rejected in August by the Essex County Council chief executive as “a step too far”.

In summary, whilst there are compelling reasons for greater Kent and Essex economic collaboration -and there are many merits in their LEP proposal - this is an argument for a ‘new regionalism’ for which Mr Pickles’ enthusiasm seems at odds with his localism beliefs.

In recent times, Robert Bolt’s portrayal of Thomas More has come under severe challenge. Mr More has instead been described as an intolerant religious fanatic “evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics”.

It would be premature and unfair to apply such revisionism to Mr Pickles. However, his professed priorities of “localism, localism and localism” have always been much more ambiguous and complex than the manner in which he has articulated them. The economic geography of localism is highly contentious and worthy of a much more honest, less evasive debate than hitherto.

Mr Pickles’ first 100 days in office was lauded by many - even beyond the Tory faithful - as the coalition’s star performer. His next 100 days will be more revealing. Will the localism idealist sustain his position as the Thomas More of this government; or will he be shown, when political expediency necessitates, to actually be a man for all regions?

David Marlow is a development economist who established Third Life Economics in 2008 to pursue his interests in providing leadership and technical assistance to organisations attempting to stimulate sustainable growth and development. David was chief executive of the East of England Development Agency for 5 years from 2003-2008. David has also been chief executive of a large metropolitan council in Doncaster and a director of local authorities in Southampton and Lincolnshire.

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