Political journalists are having the most fun ever.
July is traditionally the start of the ‘silly season’, when newsrooms are scratching around for anything to write and broadcast about. Not this year!
July 2016 will go down in history for unprecedented political turmoil: Brexit and the PM’s resignation, the Labour party’s leadership challenge, and Chilcot. Not to mention Turkey’s attempted coup, the horrors of Nice and the axe-wielding rampage on a German train.
Unlike Labour, becoming more deeply mired in its own leadership challenges, the Conservatives moved on more quickly than expected, with Theresa May making a strong start as our new PM, bringing stability and leadership with some cunning (and ruthless) Ministerial appointments; seasonally May is a month of promise and it is already evident that this will be reflected in No 10’s new policies.
Beyond the Westminster Village, focus will soon be diverted to next year’s County Council elections, and this means securing all the promised investment in infrastructure improvements, education, and the health service, to emphasise the positive opportunities for our local economies. It would be helpful for Devolution strategies to be clarified, but remember that voters will resist another tier of local government, when so much is already dysfunctional and disconnected.
As Ipswich continues to suffer from endless roadworks clogging up the streets at all times of the day, deterring visitors to the town centre and disrupting business, it’s surely time to review such programmes, evaluating their purpose and cost, and why the original timetable for ‘improvements’ has gone so drastically wrong. To most of us stuck in the endless traffic jams, it is a complete waste of money and will seriously impact on next year’s elections, because the County is responsible for inflicting the works on the town, with very little consultation. Since Labour runs Ipswich, it will capitalise on growing fury amongst the local electorate. This is not, unfortunately, an isolated case and other authorities will be similarly challenged.
So, devolution should be about joining things up and greater accountability, with less duplication between Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and local authorities, especially on ‘economic development’, and with housing and job creation more closely co-ordinated. Council taxpayers want to see value for money and outcomes which are demonstrably beneficial to communities.
It is time for dynamism, rather than stagnation, to encourage startups and innovation and boost skills training – at present there are 865,000 18-24 year-olds not in education, training or employment (NEET), so it’s small wonder that EU migrants have been welcomed with open arms by so many different businesses. If councils want to retain any influence over education, they need better planning for the right skills – and that means talking to businesses, and not just the Chamber of Commerce, instead of holding conferences which tick a few theoretical boxes, but don’t deliver on anything.
In particular, Martha Lane-Fox calls for a focus on digital skills, including for the 12.6m adults without those skills, “to position the UK as a robust, modern, digital economy”.
Some regions already have very strong links with other parts of the world, through manufacturing and trade; Councils and LEPs should work with national government to further develop those links, to attract inward investment, offering reciprocal support by encouraging businesses to export their professional expertise in engineering, architecture, research, legal, and management services, etc.
London is the centre of the universe for much of the financial and cultural sectors, but it’s also time for Westminster to acknowledge that there is a need to invest in other areas, which are disaffected because of the decline in engineering and mining which cost jobs, and in those seaside towns which struggle to attract notice. Judging from her early comments, Prime Minister May obviously recognises this.
Nevertheless, spending £60m (half from the Treasury, with £3m annual maintenance costs, although the project was supposed to be privately funded) on a garden bridge over the Thames is an insult to residents in these areas, when a similar sum could revolutionise their own communities.
Whilst I strongly believe in the value of culture for tourism and education, extending the Tate Modern is another insult to those regional towns and cities crying out for monies to improve their own museums and art galleries to get high quality items restored and out of storage, and to enhance local tourism. We have seen the revival of coastal towns in Kent and the West Country with new galleries, restaurants – but success demands strong leadership and a genuine understanding of what is needed, rather than lip service. Grants organisations, including the Arts Council, need to be challenged on spending money to the greatest benefit, based on proper business plans (or be abolished).
I hope that County Councils will demonstrate real vision and leadership in their costed manifestos for the 2017 elections, illustrating commitment to improving residents’ lives, rather than splashing out on vanity projects, and that means listening to the people (taxpayers) who pay for everything, and are outraged at the way money is wasted without accountability when they, themselves, struggle to buy their own homes.
Above all, remember that there is nothing wrong in ambitions being modest, as long as they are deliverable, so don’t just talk about it (or allow officers to write endless reports), do something. It’s the best way to rebuild confidence and bring everyone together after the divisions caused by the EU referendum. As a Remainer, myself, Mrs. May and her team give me confidence that there is life after Brexit.