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TONY TRAVERS - THINK TWICE BEFORE JOINING THE RANKS OF THE PRESCOTT-BASHERS

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Last week's select committee report on John Prescott's department was widely interpreted as a full-throttle attack ...
Last week's select committee report on John Prescott's department was widely interpreted as a full-throttle attack on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. At a time when Liberal Democrat self-destruction was filling the airwaves, some light Prescott-bashing provided the media with a mild distraction.

Councillors and officers doubtless allowed themselves a moment or two of schadenfreude at the sight of the mighty ODPM being put through the parliamentary mangle. The new permanent secretary felt the need to turn up on BBC2's Newsnight to explain the activities of his (or, more correctly, his predecessor's) department. But, is local government right to enjoy the ODPM's discomfiture?

In truth, the ODPM has been local government's 'friend at court' - at a time when it has certainly needed one. Given the propensity of departments such as the Home Office and the Department for Education & Skills to reach for the 'centralise' button, ODPM has from all accounts been the nearest to a pro-local element within Whitehall. It was, after all, the ODPM that pressed for such mild localism as the single capital pot as a way of reducing central control over investment. Inevitably, much of the rest of central government refused to allow 'their' resources to be involved. ODPM then pushed through the prudential borrowing rules.

Recently, it is evident from the pages of LGC that the ODPM's efforts to strengthen local area agreements have been thwarted by other departments.

And it was Mr Prescott, it should be remembered, who broke ranks to make clear his opposition to the schools white paper.

Mr Prescott regularly gets it in the neck for policies that seek to provide additional homes at reasonable prices. As he attempts to square the circle of allowing more of us to live in nice houses while simultaneously protecting every acre of countryside, the deputy prime minister is regularly attacked for allowing suburban sprawl. In reality, he is merely managing a process the electorate has wished upon him.

Even the Thames Gateway, with its tangle of partnerships and agencies, shows the deputy prime minister struggling to win through against the dithering and inaction of the Treasury and Department for Transport. Decent new infrastructure would allow a densely-populated new chunk of city to be built. But the chancellor will not provide the resources to allow government policy to be implemented.

It is the ODPM's role as localist champion that is surely its most important. Of course mistakes are made. Battles are lost. Crazy, complex grant systems replace half-understood earlier ones. But the Prescott-Miliband-Woolas team gives the impression it generally wishes councils well. Which, sadly, is more than can be said for most of Whitehall. Better the devil you know

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