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Budget day is a time for trumpeting achievements, for dispensing (and taking) largesse, for bigging it up in the school playground sometimes known as the House of Commons.

I’ll leave it to the Institute of Fiscal Studies to come up with a definitive line on this week’s Budget. But amid the rhetoric, it’s worth taking time to ponder what happens between policy and actuality.

Luckily we have a convenient case study in front of us. A central plank of the ‘Together we can’ strategy, which sets out ‘to enable people to engage with public bodies and influence the decisions that affect their communities’ is the guide neighbourhoods programme. This cheap and cheerful scheme helps residents in regeneration areas learn from others who’ve been there, done it and found out the hard way. It has cost £4.3m in just over two years, which even by Gordon Brown’s standards of parsimony is small change.

At its launch, former home secretary David Blunkett declared that the initiative ‘will enable community organisations to learn from each other about the best ways to engage with local and central government and get their views heard’. In making that statement he was building on years of work and direct experience among residents, policy advisers and the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, and acknowledging that local people are at the heart of sustainable communities. The initiative was accompanied by an academic evaluation, which the DCLG said would explore ‘options for long-term sustainability for this approach’.

You know what comes next. Before the final evaluation goes to ministers, the programme is stopped. Is that because the evaluation will say it has failed? No. Is it because the government’s agenda has changed? Not if ministers mean what they say: the local government white paper is chock-full of the language of empowerment.

Only last summer communities secretary Ruth Kelly declared that ‘we have not paid enough attention to passing power down to local people’. Yet here’s her department, cutting off an inexpensive and effective way of enabling local residents to learn from each other through a nationwide network about how to organise themselves and achieve lasting change in their neighbourhoods. Cock-up or conspiracy? You decide.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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