A Letter to Gordon Brown

An open letter to the prime minister with a wish list for local government.

Download the full article: Dear Gordon (pdf file, 1.28mb). This article first appeared in the Municipal Journal.


Dear Gordon

First, to get your attention as a former chancellor, I thought it might be helpful to start with money.

Despite all the best intentions, currently, 95 per cent of all public money spent locally is collected and controlled by central government. No other Western democracy
comes anywhere near to that degree of central control.

Those who prefer this extreme situation – and there are quite a few in Whitehall – will argue that it is vital to avoid a postcode lottery in the provision of public services.

However, in reality, it simply means that any possibility of local innovation in the provision of public services is crowded out. We all know that the days of
high value increases in public spending are over.

The task now is to get the best from the public spending we have already committed.

For that, we need effective co-ordination and imagination at local level. Probably, above all else, we need strong political leadership at local level which can pull together the myriad of local partnerships and agencies, and take some of the hard decisions needed for real, joinedup delivery.

Next in the in-tray is the question of our regional capitals.

While no-one can doubt the massive regeneration of cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, they still lack the powers and funding to really compete against their European rivals such as Munich, Milan and Barcelona. They also have the added disadvantage of having to attract interest and attention away from a capital which is Europe’s only world city.

It’s a bit like an American city, such as Boston having to take on the combined might of New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles in terms of the concentrated power and influence. Hopefully, something you will understand from an Edinburgh perspective!

And it’s not just government. The array of lobbyists and campaigning groups cluster around the Westminster village like moths to a flame, and are determined to protect their easy access to the London decision-makers. Even the Centre for Cities – set up to promote urban areas outside London feels the need for an SE1 address!
Does it make a difference?

Well, let me give you one practical example of the effects of this concentration of power and influence.

Manchester and its university made a reasoned case for a copyright library to be based in the North in 1974. Needless to say, all the rest in England are located within 50 miles of London. It is still waiting for an answer.

So, what is the answer to this excessive centralisation of money and power? Given that we have been discussing this since the 1960s, without much success in England, it’s clearly not going to be easy. And, I can understand your reluctance to become involved in the quagmire of local government finance and structural reform. But, there is unfinished business regarding constitutional reform as regards England.

So what could be done? Well, take a fresh look at devolution and make sure it’s about decision-makers as well as back office. The BBC move to Salford/Manchester
is a good example of how to create centres of excellence which have European, as much as national implications.

If you want to be really bold, there is no reason why, in the modern world, a reformed second chamber has to be based in Westminster.

Our regional capitals need access to independent sources of finance to support their continued regeneration. It’s clearly part of your style to develop a ‘big tent’, so it’s worth looking at the recent proposals from Lord Heseltine for urban bonds.

Part of the challenge will be to develop shared agendas where politicians of different parties and at national and local level can work together.

Ultimately, we have to develop a political culture where local political leaders can have the responsibility and take accountability for the development of their communities.

Yours, Paul