Jonathan Werran: Ministers should not be afraid to let councils sharpen their commercial edge

17 Jun

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

If timing is everything, there’s never a good time to talk about local government finances.

In the spring it is ousted to its rightful place in the fiscal pecking order below health, defence and education – with a bone or two thrown into pothole relief. Summer’s a washout.

When we are back to school in autumn, the room for attention is drowned out by party conferences (aside, memorably from George Osborne’s reclamation of the political thunder in 2015 through business rates liberation). Come winter, once the autumn statement is picked dry of mellow fruitfulness, it’s the annual pre-Christmas wait and chase until the very last moment for the local government financial settlement to fall down the chimney hours before Santa arrives.

And it’s not surprising the attention economy for council finances is so paltry. The problems are better rehearsed than the cast of the Mousetrap and the proposed solutions, in lieu of the sort of fiscal devolution that could cut the Goridan knot of today’s complex and broken arrangements, merely pile the Mount Pelion of complexity upon the Mount Ossa of impossibility.

That said, we need to talk about the ‘c’ word – commercialism. In taking back control of their financial destiny, one lever at hand for our councils is the ability to generate revenue independently and, in that time-honoured Tudor phrase, ‘live of their own’.

There has been a long and proud tradition of this from the annals. King John, admittedly in the words of AA Milne not a ‘good man’, had the rebuilding of London Bridge financed from money raised by land rented for grazing sheep.

Zooming up a few centuries, Joseph Chamberlain’s ‘gas and water’ municipalism brought commercial muscle to deliver a dramatic transformation in the people of Birmingham’s living conditions. Chamberlain’s municipal reforms saw the purchase of private gas concerns and use of their consolidated profits to then buy out and improve the city’s water supply.

Indeed, when he was Coalition growth guru, the opening to Lord Heseltine’s No Stone Unturned report featured a charming portrait of Chamberlain, to which were appended the following words:

“Unless I can secure for the nation results similar to those which have followed the adoption of my policy in Birmingham… it will have been a sorry exchange to give up the town council for the cabinet.”

Would a contemporary Chamberlain or ‘Brexity Hezza’ find that – in Jeffrey Bernard’s phrase – today no good deed goes unpunished?

In recent years of course, with negative examples that can’t be safely hidden from view, some instances of council commercial activity has gone seriously awry. There’s a short litany of examples to wheel out for the occasion: Nottingham City Council and Robin Hood Energy and of most recent spectacular note; or Croydon Council and ‘Brick for Brick’ debacle which ultimately led to special measures.

It is fair to say that commercialism in the local government context has become, by dint of media exposure, a dirty word – an activity to be handled with the utmost of care, like a financial Chernobyl.

However, there is a Conservative case for not throwing baby out with the bathwater and continuing this golden thread of self-sustaining self-government. Well-managed and with risks accounted for, commercial activity has the potential to deliver more responsive and innovative services to residents.

This isn’t an agenda for casino investment, putting local taxpayers money into speculative out of town shopping centres or amenities. Such behaviour is now precluded, and on balance rightly so.

But there is a case for investing in place and for unlocking, by dint of working with the private sector, the kind of innovation local government is always thirsting for and which has the potential to accelerate how highly valued local services, for young and old, are delivered.

A poster boy for this is Cllr Peter Fleming’s Sevenoaks District Council in Kent, which through strong and savvy leadership has leveraged investment in place to put the council on the road to self-sufficiency amid continued service improvement.

So in defence of well-managed council entrepreneurialism, Localis and Human Engine have today issued a research paper, The Commercial Edge – renewing the case for the local investment state’, in which we argued that, when carried out professionally and with risks properly-managed, this agenda an unlock immense latent place potential and deliver many clear benefits to galvanise economic and social recovery.

In reframing the debate on local government commercialism, councils are advised to apply five common themes of commercial maturity around strategy and alignment; supply; demand, market intelligence and organisational culture.

The report also sets out a suite of recommendations to inform future commercial decisions aimed at local government leaders, town hall scrutiny members and central government partners.

The comments below will make for interesting reading. Accidents will happen and mistakes will always be made. Any failure at local level – whether of commerce or child protection – invariably results in the entire sector being branded unfit to exercise its functions and a fresh round of central inspection and intervention, a blizzard of wholesale blame and condemnation which never applies to the NHS’s institutional lapses.

Renewing the agenda will also rightly require a fresh approach to local scrutiny and governance. And this has to be a case of metrics as much as optics. The immense rewards of capturing greater public and social value should be measured to encourage best practice across local government.

What is at stake here is that if the consensus is that all risk is off the table, we risk further infantilising local government to the old begging bowl act and strangle a long-tradition and strong spirit of municipal entrepreneurialism – one that is capable of adapting to present needs and circumstances.

We have a choice. Either forego this and let untold financial, economic and social value evaporate into thin air. Or support our council leaders to create public value – to bring into being from their commitment, commercial nous and acumen, valued local services and amenities that are useful, profitable and of great worth and even beauty.

Jonathan Werran: As recent local elections showed, the mayoral revolution has been a success

12 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

The injunction to “live local and prosper” is the order of the day in the aftermath of last week’s local and devolved regional elections. Good quality neighbourhoods, vibrant high streets, decent school provision and abundant high-skilled jobs from a prosperous local economy – everything that instils pride in place should be encouraged.

The Government can go so far in stimulating prosperous communities and productive places through all the funding and policy levers available to the central state. But the role of strong local leadership here cannot be underestimated in galvanizing place prosperity.

For evidence we don’t need to look beyond two of the three goals in the hat trick, starting with Tees Valley and Ben Houchen’s truly astonishing 73 per cent vote share to secure beyond all measure the mayoralty he had narrowly won in 2017. Friday’s success was followed up the next day by Andy Street, who nearly won the West Midlands Combined Authority mayoralty on first round preference alone.

On this basis, where you have mayoral figureheads who combine charisma with pragmatism, and with a sufficient war chest for investment, this is a model eminently capable of setting in motion a virtuous cycle of economic and political success. Seen in isolation, this outcome wholly vindicates George Osborne and Rupert Harrison’s coalition-era hatched devolution revolution plan.

As the former chancellor Tweeted leading up to Super Thursday, what is needed next is for more trust to be placed in metro mayors through further meaningful devolution from Whitehall. Ideally what is called for here are substantive powers over investment and fiscal leeway to inject fuel into to the tank of well-exercised convening powers.

In ConHome’s Saturday reaction, Paul Goodman noted how Houchen’s triumph and ability to deliver from Freeports to Whitehall relocation has unlocked four of Teesside’s six parliamentary constituencies. At local level, Street’s readeption of the West Midlands Mayoral Combined Authority was telegraphed by the gaining of Dudley Council, again pointing to the potency of the mayoral model, when well supported, in delivering political dividends.

However, these Conservative successes must be tempered by the twin failures to retain the combined authorities encompassing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and the West of England as well as the entrenched position of Labour’s metro mayors. Switching the voting method from supplementary vote to first past the post in future mayoral polls would have made the difference for James Palmer at least.

But any inquest must also consider the future and determine how what is working out so well as bold and pioneering in the West Midlands and North East might translate inside the deep blue wall – where the voting intentions of red urban islands such as Cambridge proved capable of commanding the rural blue seas.

Answers there may come, we hope, in the shape of the Levelling Up White Paper. If the expectation is that we revert to the vision Michael Gove offered up last July in his Ditchley Park lecture, this seemed to be pointing to one of central government rationally dealing with 50 principal players, as the US President does in relations with state governors in the federal system.

It’s very conceivable to see Conservative counties, even those shires which have been against the imposition of an urban mayoral governance model, lining up in principle with this out of party loyalty. Such a move would, by reducing the number of significant players to something manageable, align with Gordon Brown’s suggestion – one backed by Lord Hague – for saving the union by establishing some kind of “permanent forum between the regions and the nations, and the centre of government, which Boris Johnson should chair”.

But in what political economy would any new mayoralties emerge into? Going back to the first formal definition of “Levelling Up”, a term mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, we have: “Levelling up means creating new good jobs, boosting training and growing productivity in places that have seen economic decline and the loss of industry – not through a one-size-fits-all approach, but nurturing different types of economic growth and building on the different strengths that different places have.”

Just over four years ago when a formal and interventionist industrial strategy, Localis published a report in which we made the distinction between the “stuck” and the “stifled”. The stuck referred to the places that are still dealing with the fallout of the industrial trauma of the 1980s and the stifled places that are growing quickly but whose growth is hemmed in by their boundaries. We recognised both typologies as of increasing political importance, but the Levelling Up road just taken seems firmly addressed to meeting the needs of the former – and for the latter may be seen as levelling down.

Unfair as it might be, the perception among local leaders in the South East might be that in exchange for financial and political capital being invested north of the Watford Gap, they will be lumbered with the hospital pass of meeting unpopular local housing targets. To obviate this issue, a more spatial strategy for housing might insulate from some of the uproar – but not all.

To what extent pain is inevitable and suffering optional will vary. But as a universal governance model, it’s more than likely that mayoralties would necessarily involve restructuring and reorganisation. Bearing in mind the tensions and rupture between the tiers of local government amid the pandemic response last year, then if the White Paper does come out for it, like Macbeth, ‘’If it were done when tis done, twere well it were done quickly”. If not, not at all.

The evidence shows that when resourced and supported, charistmatic and committed leaders of place like Houchen and Street can lead all before them. For the sake of our recovery, we could do with more of them.

The recent example of Ben Bradley, the Mansfield MP, taking on the duty of leadership at Nottinghamshire County Council is an undeniably bold and imaginative coup which bodes well for the authority’s ability to cut through in talks Whitehall. To quote from the catchy campaign song of failed London Mayoral candidate Count Binface, it’s in such terms that you can see it being hip to be a mayor.

Jonathan Werran: Levelling up. A radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre.

6 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

Like a wild schoolyard football game, it will be a case of everyone’s eyes on the ball, with their legs enthusiastically following, as we throw our attention into the joyful pile-on of local and devolved election results.

We should certainly enjoy the spectacle of postponed local democracy restored, while voters in their millions flock to polling booths across England to vote in various district, county, unitary, London mayoral and regional mayoral combined authority elections.

But were we to zoom out and survey the whole frame, we’d see a tangled skein of pitches with different games being played out on fields of various sizes, to somewhat different sets of rules.

This is because, for many parts of England, a devolution destiny remains unfixed. This means, in certain cases, it remains doubtful whether there will be repeat polling business four years hence. The baked-in assumption is that in order to secure prized strategic devolution deals, parts of the country will submit themselves to the Whitehall meatgrinder of reorganisation.

The white paper and the problem of “place”

Today Localis has issued a place-based analysis of “Building Back Better” in a report entitled A Plan for Local Growth. The central thrust of our argument is that there should be a strict separation between short-term, community-led decision-making for town centre and high-street renewal – which boosts place prosperity – and long-term, high-value central government infrastructure strategies aimed at raising historic low-levels of productivity.

To this end, central government must get behind community control of high-street regeneration, accelerate devolved skills reforms and define a clear role for local authorities and their economic partners in driving economic development and meeting net zero targets.

On that vexed issue of local government reorganisation, our analysis questions the efficacy of driving economic recovery through changes of machinery to the local state. Localis firmly believes that national recovery through building back better and “levelling up” will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place – melding the horizontal elements of place with the sector based vertical deals from the ancien regime’s industrial strategy.

However, the problem seemingly is that the definition of “place” can mean literally anything across separate Whitehall departments operating in the same place. This is often to the bewilderment of authorities seeking inward investment and businesses seeking to survive and thrive beyond Brexit and Covid.

This Whitehall disconnect also applies to public services. Anything from dedicated schools grant, migration to criminal justice reform can see individual departments taking on bit parts – research, funding, delivery. Perhaps whether the ambit of the Levelling Up White Paper can solve the perennial problem of un-joined-up government is a moot point. But a way is needed to integrate disparate cross-departmental central government agendas so that there is actual early proof these connect at the level of place, work in practice and inspire confidence to move onwards at speed.

This is where we must pin our hopes upon Neil O’Brien to ride to the rescue.

On account of the time, money, political capital and economic potential forever lost to the pandemic, we find ourselves at more of a crucial moment than we perhaps realise. The moment calls for urgently aligning the agenda for devolution and decentralisation with that of growth and recovery.

So it is a hopeful sign that O’Brien has been set the task of pulling together the disparate threads of the levelling up agenda into a forthcoming white paper, resurrecting a cause deflated by last autumn’s failure to launch the English Devolution and Economic Recovery White Paper amid the sudden ministerial departure of Simon Clarke.

The challenge demands a policy mind as sharp and political senses as keen as O’Brien possesses. The levelling up agenda currently risks a fate worse than “Big Society” – as a potentially hugely transformative agenda with popular appeal that dies from lack of rootedness in local daily life and concrete, plainly visible outcomes.

Joining the dots on levelling up

Devolution and growth must be seen as so intrinsically linked as for one to be as impossible to conceive of as existing without the presence of the other. There’s a fancy term from classical rhetoric for the occasion, “hendiadys” or literally “one through two”. In common parlance, think of “bread and butter” or “fish and chips” and try imagining in your mind one of these essential elements without the thought of the other arising.

In an earlier Localis contribution to ConHome on England’s place in the union, and taking our cue from George Orwell, we advocated that “England has got to assume its real shape”. A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome, it was argued. And as Paul Goodman instantly observed of the Plan for Growth in ConHome, “if it really wants to go for sustainable and more even growth, the Government will need to devolve more power”.

So on the basis that levelling up, a radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre, and that we must trust in the new mayors to use their convening powers to get the local political economy around the table, how might we suggest the Levelling Up White Paper create maximum benefit for minimum effort? To build on the foundations laid out in the Plan for Growth, Localis recommends that the Levelling Up White Paper should:

  • Create pathways to community autonomy as a vehicle for hyperlocal, small-scale and patient financing of regeneration;
  • build a framework for devolution to skills advisory panels to facilitate local collaboration between employers, providers and education authorities to further accelerate the push to improve skill levels;
  • create a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for net zero; and
  • clarify and codify the role for existing institutions of the local state particularly local authorities in LEPs – in driving economic development.
The political and economic imperative

Many Red Wall Conservative MPs will become if they are not already are acutely alert to the fact that they risk paying the political price for an unreformed, silo-fixated Whitehall’s disjointed and agonisingly slow local delivery at local level.

The test for Levelling Up White Paper will be its ability to work through connective administrative tissue of the “people’s priorities” – clean growth, whatever new badge is thrown over industrial strategy, as well as local skills training. A joined-up and fleshed-out levelling up can achieve a virtuous circle of devolution, leading to growth and recovery that inspires further trust and pride in place and place leadership.

Witness the electoral fortunes of Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands. Their likely success is testament to the policy vision laid out for trusting men of “push and go”, charismatic regional leaders with energy and vision to champion their wide economic area. So on the basis that a combination of the vaccination bounce and whatever local political factors ensure a satisfactory set of local and regional results overnight, there should be both confidence and conviction to repay this trust with Whitehall ceding more powers to metro mayors in a deeper devolution settlement.

Otherwise, we risk the continuation of a lop-sided, centrally-led, interventionist growth policy which only serves to hamstring our localities from achieving anything like their fullest inherent economic and place potential.

Jonathan Werran: More rail investment won’t lead to recovery without more local governance

22 Apr

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

Politics and regional railways have had a somewhat peculiarly difficult history from the outset. At the opening of the Manchester and Liverpool railway on 15 September 1830, MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, was attempting to clamber into the Duke of Wellington’s carriage on the steam locomotive ‘Northumbrian’ during a stop for water. He fell and was infamously run over and fatally maimed by Robert Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ which, unfortunate to relate, was passing at that exact moment on the adjacent track.

Although this is a cautionary tale on the bizarre spectrum end of political fates (Huskisson was driven by Stephenson to Eccles where he died of his injuries), the future of rail connections outside the commuter focus of London and the South East does merit some serious attention across metro and retro, urban and rural divides ahead of the next general election.

In framing a localist and place-based approach to railways in the current economic, social and political climate, restoring confidence in our regional train services would present a number of benefits: it would be useful in helping to stimulate economic activity and recovery, in supporting employment growth and increased productivity in a restructured labour market, and in continuing to help meet ever stricter environmental and climate change objectives and targets.

Confidence will be crucial to the recovery and continued vibrancy of England’s ecosystem of urban areas, and investment vital in providing connectivity across the country to support more widely dispersed populations and economic activity. Regional connectivity also has a strong and immediate role to play in propping up our beleaguered leisure and hospitality sector, and other business sectors hit hardest by the pandemic.

Yet the view that rail investment alone will lead first to recovery and then onto levelling up underestimates the importance of strong local governance, carried out in partnership with business and community.

Metro transport

For the metro connections, despite the levels of prevarication we’ve come to expect from a major national infrastructure project – not to mention delays recently aided by the son of Swampy among other eco-activists – HS2 is firmly coming down the line from Euston to Birmingham.

As is the case with so many decisions from the Coalition years, the project still attracts controversy. The original business case rationale of cutting commute times to the capital to boost business performance and productivity within deluxe modern carriages has yielded to more prosaic arguments of increasing domestic rail capacity.

Yet the investment was always fundamentally totemic in what it communicated as deep support and commitment to Andy Street’s vision for the West Midlands and further out to Manchester, the Northern Powerhouse and the wider levelling up agenda. Which is not to say that our spending watchdogs won’t have a field day or fortnight evaluating the value for money angle, regardless of the funding fate overhanging the ambition for the eastern leg to Leeds and Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby.

Trainlines alone, however, cannot deliver regional growth, but must be part a cross-sectoral vision for recovery and renewal. Increasing investment and raising productivity in our city regions depends on strong integrated transport. Budget 2020 invested £4.2bn in intra-city transport settlements from 2022-23 allocating them to eight city regions across England. In Budget 2021, government confirmed capacity funding in 2021-22 for those city regions with the appropriate governance arrangements.

Through this funding, eligible city regions will be able to develop integrated transport plans based on local priorities. But consultations carried out as a part of Localis’s report with Green Alliance, The Route to Clean Growth, found that England’s largest mayoral regions – many of whom qualify for the intra-city transport settlement – have half the powers needed to adequately transform their local economies in the way needed to meet the challenges of climate change.

The Government’s decision in February to pull the plug on Transport for the North’s smart ticketing initiative mirrors a similar failure in the South East, and should be seen as worrying. It certainly doesn’t bode well for integrated transport as a strong factor in promoting clean growth at the local and regional level.

As Localis argued recently in ConHome on behalf of Oxford’s need to develop as a compact global city of strategic national importance, without devolved fiscal and growth powers, our key growth corridors don’t have a chance of addressing the economic, social and environmental changes promised in the 2019 manifesto and reiterated in The Plan for Growth.

Retro transport

Of course, the political importance of rail stretches far beyond the big-ticket city regions with devolution deals. On the rural and coastal plane, the sense of relief at overturning Dr Beeching’s cuts with a £500 million package was palpable. The loss of railway connections came as a severe body blow to many town economies up and down the country and in seaside areas especially.

Plans to reopen Northumberland’s Ahsington-Blyth-Tyne line and restore the Fleetwood route are strong Red Wall wins. At the other end of the country in the far South West, the restoration of the Exeter to Okehampton line is pretty straightforward, since it was in use for goods traffic and is set to be up and running by the end of the year. Lines that have become overgrown in the last five decades, such as the Launceston to Padstow line might make restoration of the North Cornwall economy more problematic.

The perennial problem for the restored lines will be one of providing sufficient demand to ensure profitability or break even, even in a new post-Covid age of nationalization. This alone suggests single carriage automatic electric trains may come as standard.

To attribute the promised reversal of Beeching to pure nostalgia-based electioneering, however, would be to ignore the impact of poor transport on parts of the country. We need better connectivity for social as much as physical mobility. As stated in evidence Localis gave to the All Party Parliamentary Group for Counties, poor access to transport affects education, training and work opportunities for the younger generation whose prospects have been most blighted by lockdown.

Again, improved connective infrastructure can only be a part of the whole. We must also consider how improving broadband services in areas of market failure could also help resolve some of the transport issues in an age of remote and blended working.

Double decker in the room

If there is a place-based elephant in the room, it is a nelly named bus. In this context, we must address the role of short-haul journeys that can be conveniently achieved by car or managed by bus. And it is to the recent publication of Bus Back Better we must look.

In his foreword, Boris Johnson said that building better bus services would be a ‘major act of levelling up’, and expressed a determination to share his experience as London mayor in ending the ‘classic vicious cycle’ of slow, more expensive services that deter passengers. In rural areas this might mean demand led services and smaller vehicles.

Ultimately, this will have to involve fixing the unworkable regional attempts to mimic Transport for London-style options for interoperability for fares and operators, a strategic compact between services, government mandated routes and leasing them. In essence it would involve transfiguring transport as we have experienced in the last year, from a market-oriented commodity to a public service.

Jonathan Werran: Why Oxford should be a focal point for post-pandemic and post-Brexit growth

17 Mar

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive at Localis.

In recent weeks there has been a lively and engaging post-Budget debate on this website around the Government’s Plan for Growth and its recalibration of industrial policy, enlivened by telling contributions from Greg Clark and ConservativeHome’s own Paul Goodman.

The new business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng has derided the ancien regime Industrial Strategy as “a pudding with no theme”. Indeed, Andy Haldane, Chair of the Industrial Strategy Council went on record as saying that while the policy had the right aspiration it never translated into a measurable delivery plan.

Since 2017 some £45 billion has been thrown into a staggering profusion of 142 Industrial Strategy policies, many of which were unfunded, went down civil service rabbit holes and “self-liquidated”. Like Bilbo Baggins, this amorphous policy pudding has been “sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”.

There is a lot to like in the aspirations of the “Plan for Growth” prospectus. The danger though is that without a rooted sense of place, all this good stuff from the centre simply doesn’t connect where it counts. It becomes like candy floss without the stick when applied regionally and locally. Only place – armed with local purpose and powers – can make the economic rationale for funding and investment cases cohere in a context and setting.

To support and buttress an economic recovery which is focused on innovation and a skills revolution, we should be calling for a greater emphasis on place and with it true localism, fiscal freedom and self-government. So in making the case for place to be at the heart of any central government plans for growth and levelling up, Localis is going to call upon Oxford as evidence for the prosecution. 

It’s the ideal place to start, as Boris Johnson’s articulation on the case for a Global Britain did yesterday, which took as its starting point the Prime Minister’s visit last September to the city’s Edward Jenner institute where he saw early proof of its efficacy. 

With unrivalled assets alongside the university, the city is our national poster boy for research and development. And, courtesy of the vaccine, an exemplar of translational research in action.

Oxford must and will, therefore, be a focal point for post-pandemic and post-Brexit growth as the beating heart and hub of the UK’s knowledge economy, as a coherent economic entity with an independent and unique strategic national offer. It contributes a tidy £6.75 billion in GVA to the national economy each year as a net contributor to Treasury coffers – not taking into consideration the knock-on effects of its activity, wider industrial assets and supply chains.

However, although Oxford is a compact and global city, it must be admitted that more could be done to strengthen the city’s contribution to the regional, national and international economy. Despite the prevailing image of the city “dreaming spires”, Oxford is the second most unequal city in the UK, with many long-term issues contributing to this disparity. Among these we can reckon earnings, housing, educational attainment, health outcomes and food poverty. Housing affordability is particularly stark – with a ratio of prices to earnings making it the least affordable city in the UK. 

Beyond the social, a multitude of economic factors are stifling Oxford from realising its potential as a city impact regionally and nationally. These include poor graduate retention, skills shortages for residents, crippling traffic congestion and a rail system caught in a bottleneck as well as the sluggish pace of delivering the infrastructure and housing.

So in short, there’s a case for levelling up Oxford in its own right. This is something that takes on greater regional and national importance now the Oxford-to-Cambridge Arc, on whose innovative potential so much hope for national economic renewal lies.

Oxford and its economic and innovation assets are central cogs to both to wider Oxfordshire and Arc ecosystems and their Covid-19 economic recovery. However, it has also been noted as being “an area constrained by inadequate infrastructure, a stressed and fragmented natural environment, [and] escalating housing costs”. These are all issues that hold it back from reaching its full economic and environmental potential.

How such a common purpose and ambition is to be maintained across tier-spanning local government partners, the local enterprise partnership OxLep and the Oxfordshire Growth Board and the Local Industrial Strategy and Economic Recovery Plan under “Plan for Growth” will be interesting, to say the least.

Whatever alphabet soup of new acronyms emerges, one thing for sure is that Oxford’s ability to invest in its own good growth would allow for wider benefit to be seen across the Arc, and crucially, make the city a better engine for growth within it.

With strong city-led governance, Oxford would be able punch way above its weight with its international peers and leverage its unique assets and particular strengths to recover stronger than before. Focusing these assets in the right direction would streamline the city’s local levelling up efforts to tackle transport and housing bottlenecks through delivering physical, digital and social infrastructure at pace alongside a long-term investment strategy.

There’s a fiscal devolution ask too. In order to grow at city level, Oxford would need the ability to raise local levies to fund its placemaking efforts. Both on businesses, in a manner similar to the provisions laid out in the Business Rates Supplement Act, and on residents, in a progressive manner using council tax bands as a guide.

In our report At the right level – a strategic case for city-led growth, innovation and renewal, Localis also calls for appropriate financing in the shape of a long-term £1 billion endowment fund for supporting good growth within the city. This would address the central issue of budgetary uncertainty and would form of a single long-term investment strategy for city-led growth and with it power to target investment in among other things digital, smart energy and transport infrastructure and skills.

Additionally, Oxford alongside other cities key to the Oxford-to-Cambridge Arc’s future growth, including Cambridge, and Milton Keynes need to have a clear voice within its governance, including direct representation on the proposed Arc Growth Body.

Since we can’t deliver levelling up, an industrial strategy, skills revolution and zero carbon from the centre, then the Plan for Growth must swiftly take on board and exploit the unmatched convening power of the local state – an entity which includes not just local government but also the research and development clusters, major public and private employers – to plan and deliver levelling up and recovery.

Taking Oxford as a starting point, the same need for muscular and effective localism applies to other towns and cities. Not just those in the area of the Arc such Cambridge, Peterborough, Swindon, Milton Keynes or Norwich but universally, from Ipswich to Somerset, from Staffordshire to Middlesbrough.

If the souffle of economic success is to rise on the basis of innovation and skills revolution, it needs a scaffold to keep it from collapsing. So let Kwarteng’s growth pudding have its theme, and let this theme be place – a dish confected from the finest locally-sourced growth ingredients. The proof will be in the pudding.

Jonathan Werren: The power of pubs to support communities and drive the recovery

9 Mar

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis

Nothing has signaled the cruel abeyance of normal life under a year of lockdown than the closure of our pubs. Most of us, I am sure, walk past our shuttered inns with a sense of sad longing. For my part, I find myself craning in the windows of the deserted pubs I pass, hoping to see stirrings of life, that behind-the-scenes preparations are being made for their much longed for reopening. Anticipating that we will one day be able to walk in off the street, casual as you like for that cheeky pint, troop in for a well-planned Sunday lunch with the family or sidle in of an evening for a midweek pub quiz with the regular irregulars.

Put simply, where there’s a pub, there’s a community. And in considering how we renew the nation economically and socially from the scarring of Covid-19, the pub is a central hub in countless cities, towns and villages from which the spokes of recovery will radiate.

Last week’s Budget gave the pub and beer industry a short-term shot in the arm with much needed additional grants, as well as extensions to the job retention scheme, 5% hospitality VAT rate and business rates holiday.

In the medium to long-term, however, the future of the public house as a cornerstone of community life remains under existential threat without additional well-targeted support.

Throughout 2020, hospitality as an industry and particularly the pub sector were not considered fairly or their venue safety accurately in previous iterations of social restrictions. For example, the transmission risk of pubs was treated far more seriously than in non-essential retail, and the restrictions placed on the businesses more onerous. Inconsistent messaging and a sense of moving goalposts frustrated the sector and drained the financial reserves of publicans and breweries.

Aside from the economic impact of the lockdown on pubs, their closure has had a wider impact on community cohesion up and down the country. Pubs form a vital part of social infrastructure in place and are anchors that tie the community together. This is particularly true for rural towns and villages. As one of the biggest contributors to the UK economy, the sector has a vital role to play in the recovery and levelling up journey of the country as well as in maintaining community cohesion and social resilience well beyond the pandemic.

Writing in 1912, Hilaire Belloc warned: “change your hearts or you will lose your inns and you will deserve to have lost them”. Should such a calamity unfold, Belloc added that “you will have lost the last of England”.

And what is at stake here is more than the intangible, “going, going gone” of what was once the heartbeat of British life. Failure to support the nation’s pubs return from lockdown risks imperilling the government’s levelling up agenda for economic and social renewal.

This is in large part due to the economic and social vitality of the sector, as well as its potential importance to recovery and growth. Pubs support 884,860 jobs across the UK, £12.1billion of wages, and £23.4 billion of GVA across the country. They are a key part of the foundational economy, the essential building blocks of growth in our cities and towns. In our report issued today entitled The Power of Pubs – protecting social infrastructure and laying the groundwork for levelling up’ Localis argues it is vital that the lockdown roadmap is not allowed to slip back further for pubs, and that the commitment to end all trading restrictions by 21 June must be delivered to return all pubs to viable trading.

Without such assurances and medium-term support to help place the pub sector at the foundations of a strong recovery, local economies and community resilience in left-behind parts of the country – including ‘blue wall’ former industrial heartlands, rural and coastal areas – would be particularly hit.

Research shows that a lack of places to meet, whether they be community centres, pubs, or villages is a significant determinant to social and economic outcomes for deprived communities. Areas of deprivation that lack these community assets have higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and poor health than others, leading to them being ‘left behind’.

As signposted in the Budget, working to avoid the further closure of community assets in left behind areas and ensuring that these areas directly benefit from the levelling up agenda has to be the government’s priority moving into recovery. Especially given the overlap between the left behind areas and the red wall seats won in the last general election in areas including Blyth and Newton Aycliffe.

So among our recommendations today, Localis is urging central government to further reduce the tax burden on the pub sector to aid the recovery and calls for an extension to the Business and Planning Act 2020.

Local councils should be directed to help pubs by issuing licence fee refunds – paid for by the Treasury – for the six months to June 2021, through business support grants. Additionally, where premises have been put to new community purposes during the pandemic, councils should offer a diversification grant to pubs looking to retain or expand the services they provided during lockdown.

A Britain denuded of its pubs wouldn’t be a country we would want to recognise. Perhaps, as in G.K. Chesterton’s fantasy novel “The Flying Inn”, there would be a rogue mobile pub, roaming ‘the rolling English road’ to keep the spirit of what we had lost alive. Let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that. And when we do reopen, mine’s a pint.

Jonathan Werran: The Union and the English question. The answer is to let a hundred localist flowers bloom

22 Feb

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis

The state of the Union and its survival against the threat of Scexit will likely be the only political story once the May elections are out of the way.

This debate will, perhaps, exhaust and infuriate English patience even more intently and insistently than the last occasion this once-in-a-generation issue was aired back in 2014. Because while the Lion and the Unicorn fight all about the town, the unacknowledged English question remains the dominant animal metaphor, the singular elephant in the room.

As an exasperated Emmanuel Macron had it last month, our island destiny is pure history and geography. With nearly 85 per cent of the population, England is too populous and powerful for any hope of balance among Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In sheer demographic terms, every English region bar the East Midlands (4.8 million) and the North East (2.7 million) has a population equal to or bigger than Scotland’s and a mostly comparable gross value added. England’s regions are either net contributors or have a smaller fiscal deficit to Scotland, yet enjoy lower per head public spending, thanks to the anachronistic Barnett formula.

Under the asymmetric devolution arrangement, England remains the only country of the UK without a parliament, government and first minister. As such it lacks anything like the devolved political powers matching those granted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the late 1990s.

The policy options for devolution in England, in lieu of any serious consideration of an English Parliament, have focused on three areas.

Systems and structures of regional or sub-regional government, such as mayoral combined authorities.

Alterations to the operation of the British Parliament, such as through the process of ‘English Votes on English Law’ (EVEL)

And devolution to local government.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 referendum success, David Cameron latched on to the fact that England was the “crucial part missing from this national discussion” and that “the millions of voices of England must also be heard”. Seven years on, the part of the debate that tends to get marginalized in defence of the Union is what kind of local, regional or sub-regional government would be good for England.

It is often safe to ignore the breathless and excited talk about the prospects of constitutional commissions and inquiries and the workings of a federal British system. Federalism as cause for balkanization will fail in any case, owing to the absence of an English regional consciousness. GK Chesterton’s famed “English people who have not spoken yet” do tend to speak, rather stridently, in practice by voting against things like North East regional assemblies or supranational entanglements.

Indeed, as was often said, many among the English who delivered Brexitland didn’t vote to leave the European Union only to transfer unaccountable power from Brussels to Whitehall.

Quickly restoring the nation’s economic and social fortunes must be the priority and central focus of any efforts at devolution, and certainly not the top-down imposition of unwelcome governance structures. It is understandable, from a central government perspective, and as Michael Gove adumbrated in his Ditchley lecture last year, to adopt a US model for how the president deals with 50 or so governors.

On the surface, it would seem to make more streamlined, rational sense than the local government mix that means there is a two-speed system – pitting go-ahead metro (think Andy Street in the West Midlands or Ben Houchen in Tees Valley) against retro and rural when it comes to economic growth powers.

Indeed, economic recovery and English devolution have been explicitly yoked together by the Government. The White Paper on this underwent a bizarre failure to launch last autumn, which saw a successful rearguard attempt to see off enforced unitarisation in county/district areas.

However, that political moment to deliver, after a meandering 50 year course, a rational Redcliffe-Maude model structure on English local government went with Simon Clarke’s sudden departure from government. In the absence of big-bang unitarisation, we have consultations on how best to govern Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset, and the expectation of a diluted White Paper before the year is out.

So if we take the mirage of an English parliament and the chimera of regionalisation, plus the bait and switch of structural reorgnisation for devolution off the table, what are we left with?

Well, quite possibly the strong and traditional sense of English self-government which Robert Tombs praised in The English and their history.

A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome. If parts of the country, taking the red rose of Lancashire as one example, wish to unitarise, then so be it. If there’s a consensus for One Yorkshire to capitalize on the white rose county’s identity for full place potential, what’s not to like? Were it to make sense to give our major cities greater powers over public services, pro-growth powers and investment choices to quicken the pace of adaptation and renewal, let’s make a new and improved deal for combined authorities.

Central and local relations surely reached a ‘never again’ moment during the pandemic. If the outcome is that one-size-fits-all uniformity doesn’t work in England, the central state must deal with it. Having coped with Brexit and Covid-19, the Whitehall machine could culturally learn to adapt and manage a bit more native complexity and better understand the people it purports to serve.

Function is more important than form. It doesn’t bother a person in Nottinghamshire one iota if their local government looks different to that of their counterpart in Northumberland. If the centre vacates the space, English local government will assume the shape and fill it with whatever configuration is appropriate to deliver. If an English devolution settlement is to achieve success, we will need a central government that doesn’t micromanage every last line of local public expenditure, or devise strategies that affect the destinies of places in the abstract without consultation or deep understanding of local context.

So after function and form comes finance. With an eye to the next multi-year spending review, changes in how we resource the English local state will prove vital. Localis’s recent international survey of how fiscal decentralization and devolution work out in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland points the way.

The examples from continental Europe neatly disprove the bogey-man argument that fiscal devolution should always lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ or an iniquitous postcode lottery. Far from it.

On the contrary, the evidence suggests instead that without greater decentralisation of local government finance, the levelling up agenda will fail to provide either the targeted economic development support to rebalance regional economies or the social infrastructure to cement place prosperity.

Ultimately, as George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn’ from 1941, “England has got to assume its real shape”.

Jonathan Werran: To build back, we need strong and empowered communities

17 Nov

Jonathan Werran is the chief executive of Localis.

At the outset of this crisis, on March 20th, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:

“We want to look back on this time and remember how we thought first of others and acted with decency.”

Eight months on, the cumulative impact of the countless acts of local kindness made by myriad groups of individuals and communities who have risen to the challenges of the coronavirus year, simply can’t be overstated.

Showing a degree of courage, wisdom, and compassion for the people they love in the places they live, community groups have sprung into action and continued to exert themselves bravely and vigorously to serve the needs of others. The range of bottom-up initiatives has been truly inspiring in breadth of scope, innovation, and dedication. In this, we see the strong beating heart of genuine local self-government.

This should come as little or no surprise to ConHome readers. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” wrote Edmund Burke. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of country and mankind.”

Not wishing to dwell too much on the courtier battles being played out in SW1, but we have surely now reached peak centralism. And the example of our communities in action holds up a mirror to the kind of society we want to be. Independent, family-focused, and resilient, while acting with an awareness of responsibilities and duties to serving neighbours in our midst. Confident of place and proud of identity, yet outward-looking and associative.

If Johnson’s government is looking to reset and pivot to the kinder and greener, exalting the role of community and family as much as ‘grands projets’ and levelling up growth schemes, then we need to think about the social infrastructure that needs to be laid in parallel tracks alongside the billion pound big ticket items.

At Localis, we agree with the findings of Danny Kruger’s ‘Levelling Up Our Communities’ report. Maximising the role played by community groups in the COVID-19 recovery and the government’s levelling up agenda thereafter suggests a space in which hyperlocal organisations should be given freedom to operate. Communities need both powers and resources to step up with a stand alone spirit if they are to create public value. We need to allow communities to self-organise, take back control locally of assets, and deliver unique local services where they have desire and capability.

So, in our report which is published today “Renewing Neighbourhood Democracy – Creating Powerful Communities”, we think back to the pandemic when communities mobilised around local rugby clubs and arts projects as much as in any predefined emergency response committees. And looking forward, we think ahead to what are now the best opportunities for giving our communities the chance to cohere, flourish, and renew our society and economy from the ground up. Here’s how we see it at Localis.

Firstly, the forthcoming Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper offers an immediate point of departure for reform. It should codify the role of councils in a facilitative local state by beginning the process of creating clear, statutory pathways to community autonomy. For example, the white paper should identify areas of service delivery that could be co-designed, run in partnership, or devolved entirely to the neighbourhood-level, particularly if the size of local authorities is to increase with reforms.

In doubling down on devolution, a statutory role should be created in local authorities for managing the process of subsidiarity and community relations, serving as a single point of contact and information for community groups looking to establish forms of local control.

How to glue this together? Firstly the ‘pop-up parish’ or Community Improvement District model should be extended as a statutory community right alongside the previous rights established in the Localism Act 2011. And pathways should be developed for communities to take control of non-core service spending at neighbourhood level through initiatives like the People’s Budget in Frome Town Council.

Secondly, to enshrine the principle of double devolution and expand upon the Localism Act’s establishment of Community Rights, the white paper should extend these rights to give the community greater power over local assets and social infrastructure.

In practical terms, all assets that qualify as having community value under the current system should be designated as social infrastructure. And if a community group decides to take on a community asset, they should be supported, both procedurally and financially, in their endeavours to do so.

The introduction of localised lockdowns has further emphasised the importance of front-line action from community groups. So thirdly, the government should urgently renew and extend financial support for voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations to respond to the pandemic, particularly as the reintroduction of lockdown measures escalates.

To ensure a fast and targeted response, a fund could be distributed to community organisations by local councils in lockdown areas in a manner similar to the distribution of the pandemic-related Small Business Grant Fund. As with the Small Business Grant Fund, the focus should be on rescue at any cost for the sake of national resilience, and the overall fund should be matched to need rather than to a specific cash limit.

Fourthly and finally, in order to strengthen social infrastructure, and properly resource endeavours to empower communities in a manner that is participatory and gets results, central government should commit to establishing a Community Wealth Fund – along the lines called for in Danny Kruger’s idea of a ‘Levelling Up Communties Fund’.

The fund would specifically target the social and civic infrastructure of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods across the country. It would be an independent endowment that would be distributed over the course of ten to 15 years, to include investment at the hyperlocal level, decision-making would be community-led, and, as part of the package, support would be provided to build and sustain the social capital of communities and their capacity to be involved.

In this way, we lay the foundations for strong and empowered communities and so build back and recover the right way up.