Winning Odds
28 April, 2005

Ian Parker, Head of Strategic Communications, NLGN
PR Week

If the odds being offered by Britain’s turf accountants are any indicator, those who spend election campaigns crystal ball gazing have never had it so good. Granted, even a somewhat hefty flutter on Tony’s Pony (jockey: G. Brown) at odds of 1/20 on won’t bring much bang for your buck. But those recent discussions in which you revealed to less-knowing friends the political equivalent of “a tip from a stablehand” will at least guarantee your stint as the all-knowing oracle.

Predicting likely shifts in policy and politics beyond 5 May is a rather more thankless task. It neither warrants attention from the bookies, or much public debate. Think tanks of course thrive on such chatter, and one of the main issues vexing myself and colleagues is the possibilities for the ever-shifting terrain that is central-local relations. And more pointedly, will the next few years see a more empowered and sophisticated system of local government given the room it needs to flourish?

Naturally, having championed ‘New Localism’ for so long, NLGN is determined to see a concept that has caught the imagination of so many in Whitehall and our town halls deliver on its great devolutionary promises.

There is a risk of course that the ‘centre’ will panic, and start desperately reining in the various powers and freedoms trickled out to councils over the past eight years. Despite tectonic shifts towards devolution occurring elsewhere in Britain, England remains a fundamentally over-centralised territory.

Yet an opportunity to make some real headway does appear to be on the political horizon. With the flat-lining polls suggesting a likely Labour majority of around 70-80 and a mass exodus of savvy special advisers, local government should find itself able to take a much bolder approach towards central-local relations.

To do so effectively, senior local government figures must bear in mind the nature of the forward agenda. In short, it will be a much more complex and multi-faceted affair. Working with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (or whichever hallowed offices the council brief ends up in) to make a reality of community leadership and the neighbourhood agenda is going to be crucial. As will the role local government leaders play in shaping revitalised debates about city-regions and city-mayors. But these emerging agendas aside, quick illustrations are going to be required of the potential for local government to work with other parts of the Whitehall pitch.

Suggesting collaborative projects to DfES, Defra, the Home Office and others on the impact of policy on particular localities may be the obvious way forward. Such activity would hopefully give local government the practical base on which to lobby for the extra tools required to play its community leadership role more meaningfully. Approached strategically and in a joined-up way, the agenda would appear there for the taking.

If I were to hope for one legacy for the parliament ahead, it would be for a more confident local government community given the due respect it deserves at the centre, and the powers to boot. And the runes would suggest that if you can find a bookmaker offering decent odds, backing the local is probably worth a speculative punt.