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News that the Japanese have invented a toy robot that can dance and kiss might come as a welcome relief to those in government who are feeling a little friendless just now.

But you don’t need to be a Gordon Brown to bewail the dearth of understanding and sympathy from an ungrateful populace.

That’s always been the downside of leadership. And unless they’ve flipped sufficiently to want to take refuge with an obliging robot, that’s what leaders have to live with.

For many, that process of taking the flak and negotiating solutions is just too much effort.

There was a scheme a few years ago to build closer ties between Liverpool and Manchester.

Launched with a fanfare by former deputy prime minister John Prescott, it disappeared without trace; the reason, I’m told, is that those responsible for pursuing the vision couldn’t agree when they would hold their next meeting.

Look at English regional economic policy and you see the same failure to risk unpopularity by being decisive.

For the last decade we’ve worked on the principle that if every region does its best to grow, those nasty inequalities will be smoothed over at the same time – regardless of the fact that little of significance has been done to change government investment and spending decisions.

The result is that the poorer performing regions are worse prepared for a downturn than would have been the case if the government had invested more boldly when times were good.

Now, of course, ministers are shifting responsibility for economic development to the local level in the name of devolution, while tightening the purse strings. But there are still opportunities here for those who are brave enough.

In Newcastle and Gateshead, the two local authorities are already seizing those chances by setting aside old rivalries and are working on a combined city development company.

They’ve realised there’s more to be won by collaborating than by fighting over resources.

What’s impressive is not just that the civic leaders have grasped that vision, but that it’s already being pursued at an operational level: instead of competing for business, the councils work together to give investors a consistent message and to provide employment for local people, whichever side of the Tyne they happen to live on.

That kind of leadership involves questioning and challenging familiar ways of working. It means continually asking what is appropriate and being ready to break old habits. Inevitably, it brings resistance.

But it’s more fun than dancing with robots.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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