Jobs, growth, decentralisation and strong local governance go hand in hand. A pile of Cabinet Ministers, unlike the Prime Minister, decided against a diary day to campaign in favour of Mayors, and that is because the campaign for growth was never a one trick pony. So as the Coalition re-launches itself this week it ought to congratulate key ministers on the deep progress they have made to build local power. It ought to welcome this success but then take a radical step forward.
Think of all the firsts: Planning guidance has been slashed from over a thousand pages to fifty. Local charities have new ‘community rights’ – live in most places for the first time only this week - which permit them to save, run and buy assets which would otherwise be lost to local control. Liverpool, Leicester, and Salford have executive Mayors, Bristol wants one and even Birmingham which voted ‘no’ to a Mayor now has a leader for four years , rather than one subject to his group’s whims, thanks to the Localism Act.
‘City Deals’ which give new powers to local leaders push this logic much further still, and so will create the conditions for new growth in the West Country and the North of England even before Mayor Boris asks for fresh powers for London. For the first time Manchester will now get to reinvest some of the economic returns it generates from beefing up its transport infrastructure without the Treasury taking it all back to London. The English economic renaissance was never the subject of a single ‘PM’s plan’ or quick fix but comprises a portfolio of methods and opportunities by which localities can regain powers to drive growth as many once did.
A conviction that local people know best how to drive economic growth runs deep across the Coalition partners. Weaning central departments, rooted in Fabian evidence based policy making that looks backwards , from their distrust of real innovators and entrepreneurs who create new history going forwards, is consequently one of the government’s greatest challenges. Its success will be crucial for ‘Team Cameron’ and needs more than exhortations to ‘cut red tape’. And this is where the radical step is required.
The government needs more senior members who are both from, and will champion, the North and other regions beyond London. It needs at its heart those that will argue trenchantly for a dispersal of power to free up the niches in which public, civic and private innovation can collide to drive more value from our economy. It needs fresh policy thinking. And in seeking these it needs to have the courage to stay on its progressive course rather than default to the financial miscalculations of Ed Balls, or the political enthusiasms of Nadine Dorries. There is everything to play for now and fresh voices from diverse backgrounds will help.
But there is a radical task for the future also. The Conservative party needs strategies to invade professional social welfare, the North and Britain’s minority communities . It needs to behave as if it is a ‘one nation’ party ready enthusiastically to govern the whole country and not just its heartlands. : To put it bluntly there has not been anyone in a Conservative cabinet from a professional social welfare background since Virginia Bottomley stepped down. This makes enthusiastic ‘social action’ trips led by MP’s look well-intentioned but could be seen to lack enduring commitment by those who graft away at the coalface of care in Northern hospitals, neighbourhoods and prisons with little public praise. A Conservative leadership network for the North could address this gap but also reach out to the emerging generation , less tribal than their forbears, open to becoming engaged, but who may still lack the confidence to speak ‘the Conservative’ or even ‘the Coalition’ name. Such a network could run trips to the South (and help Sussex visit Solihull and St Helen’s too). And, as Downing Street’s polling shows, these new takers will often be found in the Sikh, Chinese and Hindu communities whose position is now well established in many towns.
The four crucial calls of jobs, growth, decentralisation and strong local governance go hand in hand. And as the Coalition sets about its task with a new vigour it ought to celebrate the successes it has secured, but also name the more radical cutting edge that its needs to pursue them further. A new cutting edge that refreshes its current top team and builds a fresh one for the future.
Tom Lomax is a North West based journalist specialising in social affairs.