One of the problems with localism is that it sounds very grand and clever in opposition, and then turns out to be a nightmare to implement in reality. A minister recently remarked to me rather grumpily recently that ‘all the good people left local government because Labour starved them of responsibility’, and a lack of skills at the top does make it a little more risky to hand powers from Westminster to councils. But there are local authorities who are savvy and brimming with ideas who do want – and deserve – more control over policymaking, such as Manchester. Manchester has caught the eye of Chancellor George Osborne for being an experimental authority, and I look at its worker bee ethic in my Telegraph column today.
But councils like Manchester aren’t just keen to run pilots for the government because they are somehow affable: they know that the more competent and clever they show themselves to be, the more power they are likely to get. Manchester is part of the Core Cities group of councils – Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield being the others – which is currently campaigning for greater financial freedom along with Boris Johnson. They want devolution of property tax revenues streams and the power for councils to reform those taxes too.
There is also pressure within the Conservative party from campaign group Renewal to give cities more power. Renewal is interested in devolution to cities from an electoral point of view: they think this will broaden the appeal of the Conservatives by supporting job creation in urban areas where most voters don’t consider voting Tory to be an option.
Labour is also, I understand, mulling its own new version of localism. Party strategists think that this government’s planning policies have been sufficiently botched for a Labour 2015 manifesto to offer local people a ‘real say’ over planning, for example. They too are trying to get a piece of the Manchester magic, consulting council leader Sir Richard Leese as one of the three co-chairs of the party’s local government innovation task force. I also hear that the party is considering coming up with a new name for localism that appeals to voters.
But whatever the name is, localism is clearly still in vogue, and that is partly down to this ambitious generation of councils who, like Manchester, are prepared to make the case for Westminster politicians trusting them more and more.