Post-Brexit Britain: we need bespoke and locally-made policy responses

January 24, 2017   By Professor Gerry Stoker, University of Southampton

Local government officials and to a degree local politicians are often praised for their realism. For example, in the light of sustained spending cuts local government since 2010 local government it is claimed has kept things going. Its key figures have been prepared to see things as they are, take the tough decisions, and well, got on with the job. But what do realists do when fantasists have taken over national and international policymaking?

I am talking here of course about President Trump but also closer to home significant actors in HM Government and her loyal Opposition. Fantasists can of course also be idealists, optimists, or visionaries. They provide a sort of leadership; maybe even a leadership that is needed in certain times. Given I am a realist (possibility even one of those terrible experts) I can recognise that prediction is not an exercise in perfection. I can accept that these fantasists/visionaries might respectively make America great again through a new protectionism, produce a new global free-trade post-Brexit British utopia or create the conditions for first socialist republic of the 21st century. But there is no chance that they can all succeed and in my evidenced-focused estimation little chance that any of them will. Danny Boyle this week refers to his film, Trainspotting 2, as a meditation on failure. I think the odds favour him having plenty more material for further films in post-Brexit Britain.

The real divide in today’s post-Brexit politics is not driven about the arrival of post-truth politics. Misinformation, lies and dishonesty have always played a part in politics; that’s not the new factor. No, the real difference today it that the fantasists are in the ascendency over the realists. There are positives in the offer from fantasists which are sometimes hard for voters to resist. They focus on what could be – on how they would like the world to act and behave – rather than evidence of the pitfalls and obstacles that might befall the delivery of their preferred world. They can sound authentic as fears, dreams, hopes and faith speak to the human condition. Realists have a harder sell. They are pragmatists, doers, compromisers and practical (and just a little bit boring).

So, should local government post-Brexit join the fantasists? No, that way I think would make a bad situation worse but what I do think is that local government needs to get better at realism. We need a realism that is less pragmatic and more strategic. We need to move beyond managing the rubbish dealt out by others and more on to developing an action plan that can deliver placed-based policymaking that works.

There are emerging new cleavages in the economic and social makeup of Britain that are reflected in the Brexit vote and must play a role in the construction of policy options in its aftermath. One trajectory sees the emergence of boom towns and cities have found a niche in the new global order. Think Cambridge. They are highly connected, decidedly innovative, well-networked, attracting skilled populations, often supported by inward migration, and display the qualities of “cosmopolitan” urbanism. The other geographical type is focused on declining cities and regions. They are experiencing the outflow of capital and human resources and are suffering from a lack of entrepreneurship and low levels of innovation and intellectual. Think Stoke. These are the places said to be “left behind” and the subject of much public debate.

So, the realist the challenge is to define the substance and processes necessary to achieve place-based policymaking to meet increasingly diverse social and economic contexts within England (but also within devolved Scotland and Wales). Brexit revealed the cleavages but not how to respond. For cosmopolitan areas of growth, the challenges are congestion, housing shortages and sustaining a wider social fabric as the pace of work accelerates. For those “left behind” areas that can join the new economy as latecomers, a clear specification of the niche and focus of their ambition as well as targeted financial incentives, infrastructure and training would be required. We may also have to accept that some areas will be forever left behind and develop a planning system capable of managing decline and embracing the potential of declining growth in terms of climate and lifestyle gains.

The point for post-Brexit Britain is that we need bespoke and locally-made policy responses- not copycat, not off the shelf, not picked up from travelling expensive consultants. The message to realists in local government is get your partners and citizens together and do it for yourself. But do it in three stages. First, honestly audit where your locality stands in the new global order. Second, understand that waves of possibly further negative global changes in economic and societal structures are still on their way and so do not just imagine them away like the fantasists. Finally, develop a local but realistic vision of what might be, and then don’t just sell it but organize to deliver it.

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