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The pragmatic localist

He’s championed localism from the outside, now James Morris has the chance to drive it from the centre. Clare Goff meets him

One of the first text messages James Morris received when he became a Member of Parliament during the last election came from a fellow MP. It read simply: ‘Congratulations! Another localist at the centre.’ As new MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, James Morris would not be exaggerating if he claimed to have localism running through his veins.

Having been an entrepreneur in the software industry, he took his first step into politics in 2003 when he set up the campaigning organisation Mind the Gap to promote civic action and plug the ‘growing gap between citizens and political decision-making’. A pamphlet then followed entitled Change Starts Small in which, he says, he went on a ‘philosophical journey down the route of localism’.

This journey continued when, in 2008, he was appointed chief executive of think tank Localis and began mapping and outlining what decentralisation might look like from a centre right perspective, work which later fed into the Conservative’s first major foray into the localism agenda under David Cameron’s leadership, Control Shift.

Being selected to fight a marginal seat, he was thrust into real life political campaigning and, having won in May 2010 – becoming the first Conservative ever to gain a seat in the Sandwell area since it was created – he is now able to test how those philosophical ideas on localism might work in practice.

After eight months in the job, how is this passionate advocate for localism finding the reality of politics in Westminster?

‘It’s interesting to see how the machinery of government operates, to see the mindset and how it needs to change if the localism agenda is to be successful. The mindset goes across departments and is there in the way departments feel and work.’

Changing this mindset, both from the centre and locally, is the task he has set himself and a mantra he regularly repeats. It is a mantra that is in line with the task the coalition government has also set itself. Cutting down on red tape and freeing up government workers – and local communities – to find solutions to local problems are at the heart of the new localism and decentralisation bill, currently working its way through parliament.

With a background in business, he believes that by moving away from the obsession with performance management that dominated the New Labour era, the new government will free up the entrepreneurial energy at the local level.

‘I’ve always worked for relatively small organisations, they’ve often been start-up organisations where you have to put the effort in to make change happen. That kind of entrepreneurial energy needs to be translated into transforming communities.’

Unlocking the energy and changing the mindset sound great in theory, and in political pamphlets and papers, but how will they work in practice? Mr Morris is confident the localism bill and other changes government is making will, he says, usher is a new wave of ‘collaboration and innovation’. Local government has been suffering from Stockholm syndrome, he says, unable to shake off its dependence on top-down relationships. But as councils and local communities become more aware of the new freedoms and opportunities they will cast off such ‘mindsets’ and embrace change.

So far, the localism bill – and the financial settlement for local councils – has done more to anger local government than free up its latent energy. Many councils are now too busy dealing with eye-watering cuts to think about reform and entrepreneurial activity. Some of those who have delved into local innovation have already backed away from it: Liverpool and Knowsley councils made plans to share a regeneration chief but have found it unworkable in practice.

James Morris believes that, rather than battering local government, the fiscal challenge will be a catalyst for change. But he is not dismissive of the difficulties ahead.

‘I don’t underestimate the challenges associated with change. Most enlightened people in local government recognise that this is the future but there is a journey to be gone on.’

His own journey into localism has pitched him on the side of ‘pragmatic localism’ as opposed to ‘localist fundamentalism’, a distinction he set out ahead of the publication of the localism bill in December. Localist fundamentalists want to sweep away all existing institutions, including local government in its current state, while pragmatists are more keen to mould existing structures towards localist ends.

When it was finally published, the localism bill was a mix of fundamentalism (directly-elected mayors) and pragmatism (general power of competence); Mr Morris applauds the bill and, as a member of the communities and local government select committee, is heavily involved in inquiries into the government’s localism agenda, into the impact of cuts on local government and on the abolition of regional spatial strategies.

A particular interest of his is reform of local government finance. He wants an end to discrepancies in the allocations of central grants, which impacts on his own local councils of Dudley and Sandwell, where one gets £60m more than the other despite their similar profiles. He envisages a future in which the balance of local government finance is skewed towards the local rather than the central.

In his vision of localism, local government will be less of a deliverer and move into much more of a commissioning role. Local accountability will be rebuilt and strengthened, one of the key challenges of the new agenda, he says.

‘As soon as there is local service failure and the media gets involved it becomes very tempting for national politicians to step in. At the moment the general public perceives that it’s the secretary of state or the prime minister who’s responsible for sorting it out. ‘Fundamental to changing the political decision-making culture in Britain is to trust local politicians to make the right decision and if things don’t work out they need to be held to account.’

He sees his own role as that of an advocate, building bottom-up pressure and capacity for change, bringing groups together and helping to unlock relationships.

‘I’ve realised one of great things about parliament is you can question anything and make things happen if you are persistent.’

So far he’s enjoying the ride, despite the turbulence of the initial phase.

‘I got my result at five in the morning and was in the House of Commons the following Monday, but there wasn’t a government then. It took eight months to get an office sorted.’

One of his first steps as MP was to help ensure the establishment of a Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership. His constituency area missed out under the era of regional development agencies, he says, where louder voices in the region got a bigger slice of funding.

‘If you look at economic measures in the Black Country and the west midlands, nothing changed over that time. It’s madness to continue a policy that isn’t working. We need to try something different.’

One of the priorities of the LEP – and top of the agenda for Mr Morris – is to focus on the area’s skills mismatch. With a more targeted focus on economic development in the area and with local businesses, education and local authorities working more closely together, Mr Morris hopes to get more movement on the issue.

‘We need to create proper apprenticeships and for local businesses to define what they need in terms of skills.’

He is also looking at how local small and medium-sized businesses can be supported, particularly those in the region’s new growth areas such as advanced manufacturing. The one-size-fits-all approach to business, which saw every area in the country pushed into becoming a high tech cluster, needs to be replaced with a more targeted and localised approach, as well as a broader definition of economic development, he says.

‘Economic development is about strengthening and rebuilding communities, on focusing on the environment and on local resilience.’

While Mr Morris is conscious that change will be slow, he is starting to prepare the way forward in his constituency, working with a local provider of youth club services to help them take over a local asset.

But he is also aware of the need for speed and of the political opportunity currently laid before the coalition government.

‘My view is that we have a once in a generation opportunity to change the landscape of Britain and we need to move as quickly and radically as we can in order to achieve that.

‘There are particular opportunities thrown up through the coalition government, and one of the areas where there is high level of strategic agreement is around decentralisation. It’s like the sweet spot of policy meeting political opportunity. We have an opportunity to really move forward on this localism agenda now.’

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