Untapping local potential is key to ending Westminster’s soap opera

16 Nov 23

The reshuffle was an audit of localism, writes Localis chief executive Jonathan Werran.

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‘In my end is my beginning’ is the oft-quoted start to the second of TS Eliot’s four quartets. And so, to this week’s reshuffle. The dramatic return of David Cameron into the cabinet fold surely brings to symmetric end 13 years of Conservative coalition, majority, minority and then majority rule.

Credulity in our national politics has been stretched to an almost Putinesque threshold of ‘nothing is true and everything is possible’. As some commentators noted, reminiscing on Dallas, that mega 1980s soap set in the Texas oilfields, Cameron’s return was some kind of Bobby Ewing style return. For those not familiar with the least plausible of plot twists, Bobby, a younger scion of the white-hatted oil tycoons had been killed off at the end of series eight, only to return at the end of the ninth gamely emerging from a shower, a theatrical device which effectively rendered all that had previously taken place in that season as his wife’s long lucid dream.

It should be noted here that Suella Braverman’s parents were such huge fans of Dallas they named their daughter Sue-Ellen in tribute to the long-suffering wife of Larry Hagman’s villainous protagonist ‘JR Ewing’. Time will tell soon enough whether in light of this week’s Supreme Court ruling on Rwandan deportations, Braverman, like her fictional namesake, has botched her assassination of Sunak as her namesake did in Dallas’s more conventional plot cliffhanger. But unlike then, there is no mystery as to who fired the shot.

The return of Lee Rowley to his previous DLUHC role as housing minister, becoming the 16th since 2010, has been noted as totemic of administrative instability. As to actually enacting housing and planning reform that increases delivery, with the passage of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act, we’re sitting in the waiting lounge for what the next parliament might do to galvanise housebuilding of the types and volume of homes the country needs.

Tellingly, as part of former prime minister Liz Truss’s independent growth commission, Sir Simon Clarke this week re-championed calls for a zonal planning system. This policy was one which as junior minister in his first stint in government in 2020 was proposed in the ‘Planning for the future’ white paper.

Zoning was sacrificed to the altar of political expediency and backbench NIMBYism after the Lib Dems used its promise of housing delivery to win the Chesham and Amersham by-election. This indicates the argument is far from over in Conservative ranks and attention will shift anyway to what policies a Starmer administration would deliberate over to hit the commitment to build 1.5 million homes over the next parliament.  

Rowley has been replaced by Simon Hoare, whose appointment and time to grip the ministerial brief will only delay the by now beyond critical failure to tackle the whole system audit backlog amid a paralysis of institutional buck-passing.

With all attention fixed to next week’s Autumn Statement, among the latest of last-ditch attempts to rejig a moribund national economy, Simon Hoare will in effect be seeking with officials in negotiation with the Treasury to stave off local government finance from a sort of domino theory of Section 114 notices over the bleak midwinter.

Again, this is a final accounting of the impact and longer-term trajectory of the 2010 Spending Review choices which dramatically reduced local government resources and set in train the consequences to our current point of instability, which links our end to our beginning like an ouroboros snake devouring its tail.

The Autumn Statement is also forecast to herald a conjuror’s flourish of tier 2 and tier 3 devolution deals. As the culmination of Levelling Up as the flagship domestic policy of the 2019 Conservative manifesto, one wonders how much further we’d have advanced if the same energy and determination that characterised, say, the vaccines taskforce had been applied to the crusade to reduce regional economic inequality from the start of 2020. 

Or if the various competitive funds had been fire-hosed with the liberality of say the bounceback loans or PPE procurement, to ensure that towns across the country would now be enjoying the conspicuous benefits of levelling up largesse. Instead, amid occasional flourishes of improved train and bus stations and Britain in bloom style hanging baskets, too much of our public realm remains slightly shoddy, with high streets pockmarked by empty units and a feeling of decline.

An overdue audit of localist policy from either span of Cameron’s career in government from the coalition to the present, would likely conclude that the frontloaded cuts of 2010 and localism act of 2011 as overseen by Lord Eric Pickles and his spad Sheridan Westlake were the significant acts and achievements. 

The rest was a series of largely unfulfilled promises. These encompass Osborne’s fiscal devolution bombshell at the 2015 party conference in Manchester, the vacillation over devolution deals and industrial strategy which caused uncertainty and hampered local growth during the Brexit years. Infrastructure as a catalyst for economic renewal was in any case first undermined by the death slide of capital spending reductions in the Coalition years and then by subsequent failure to borrow for regional infrastructure when interest rates were favourably at zero.

Given the country’s immense latent potential, there should be strong reasons for hope in restoring national prosperity, addressing regional inequality and invigorating local pride in place. Untapping this will require a strong and coherent political vision, it will depend upon viable long-term place policy and the discipline to stick with a growth storyline that is working, rather than a series of chop and change plot devices.  We don’t need desperate showrunner Dallas storylines. Instead, our national story deserves a greater sense of continuity, and dare one say, dynasty.

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