Local authorities are stronger together than apart

With the local elections coming up, its worth remembering that co-operation is key to development.

Cities across the country have responded to the wanted ad issued in the Localism Act. Politics outside Westminster suddenly looks very interesting. The impending referendums on elected mayors have grabbed the imagination and the headlines, but there is a quiet revolution in local governance that has been less commented upon.

Developments in the Leeds City Region remind us that championing localities is about collaboration as well as leadership. Leeds and its neighbour’s intention to follow Greater Manchester in establishing a combined authority shows that collaboration across functional economic areas is a growing phenomenon. The future story of local government will be as much about newly combined authorities as newly elected mayors.

Local champions can drive local economic growth. The areas in and around cities such as Leeds or Manchester, have vibrant economies – and what they often need most is internal and international connectivity. This description would equally apply to areas like Tyne and Wear or the Birmingham conurbation. If England’s cities and shires are going to fulfill their potential then creative approaches to investment are required. Mayors alone will not be able to provide this.

A good example of local investment to support business is provided by Northamptonshire County Council. The council made a £10 million secured loan to protect the future of the British Grandprix at Silverstone Circuits. It also made a £1.5 million contribution to a new high-tech business park to develop automotive innovations. The new technology park is expected to create 2,400 jobs and the loan could help protect 22,000 jobs in Silverstone and across the rest of the country.

Analysis in NLGN’s latest report – Grow Your Own: Skills and infrastructure for local economic growth – found that this investment can be scaled if councils are willing to pool their capital funding and borrowing capacity. The ten Greater Manchester authorities recently agreed a £1.5 billion revolving investment fund for major transport infrastructure. A single economic strategy gave the councils the confidence to allocate their own money and borrow substantial amounts to invest in a wide ranging programme of which extensions to the Metrolink are a centre piece. Joint borrowing helped to mitigate the risks that the councils faced in underwriting new investment.

The Leeds City Region wants to develop its own model for investment and is working with government in order to achieve this through the City Deal process. Leeds hopes that Whitehall will match fund £200 million worth of pooled investment cash. The money would be spent on new infrastructure to connect the sub-region’s economy. One way to encourage others to take up this approach would be to extend city deals beyond the core cities through a series of LEP deals.

Policy innovation is particularly important given the £4.9 billion spending gap inherited by local government and Local Enterprise Partnerships following the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies. The ability to pool investment is also the reason that combined authorities could have more clout than mayors in single authorities.

City mayors are often presented as business-friendly "one-stop-shops", providing clear points of contact for prospective investors. This potential will be limited unless they operate through the kind of collaborative local governance that is envisaged for the Leeds city-region.

In Birmingham there is much excitement over the potential of a mayoral race between Siôn Simon, Gisela Stuart and Liam Byrne. But their capacity to drive change will be undermined unless the city and its surrounding area cooperate. Currently the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP is struggling to agree on shared economic priorities with the neighbouring Black Country LEP. This makes no sense to a major multinational company making a major capital investment, such as Jaguar Land Rover looking to build a new automotive factory.

The government ducked the opportunity to support metro-mayors. Admittedly, the local politics of such a role could have proved one step too far for local cooperation. However, if mayors make narrow investment decisions based on authority boundaries they will exacerbate existing problems.

Elected mayors can be important figureheads for communities. They can also champion major investment projects, such as Crossrail, and help to attract future business investment. But local growth is equally dependent on local government. Combined authorities investing smartly – in everything from skills to infrastructure – may hold the keys to unlocking local economies.

A woman walks past Manchester City Town Hall. Photograph: Getty

Joe is a senior researcher at the New Local Government Network

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt