Decentralisation should be at the heart of a social justice agenda

Catherine West MP

Regardless of the outcome of the next general election, money will be tight in terms of public spending priorities. Labour at local level is keen to see real change in all neighbourhoods. After May 2015 we cannot continue more of the same narrow, siloed approach to cuts that leaves Whitehall boundaries intact and devalues local councils.

Despite already proving itself to be the most efficient part of the public sector, councils have taken a real beating over the last four years. More of the same could lead to conflict and despair from local government. They have shouldered a disproportionate share of the cuts – with their funding reduced on average by 33 per cent in the first three years of this government, compared to 12 per cent average across Whitehall.

I hear local representatives talking about the unacceptably high numbers of young people out of work, the social care crisis hitting our older folk and the desperate need for better infrastructure spending – be it on homes in London and the south east or transport infrastructure in other parts of the country. A big housing and transport infrastructure plan is essential if we want to rebalance our economy and compete internationally, to give people a stronger sense of hope and ambition for future generations.

That’s why the work of the Local Government Innovation Taskforce is crucial in making the case for greater influence at local level and a more targeted, cost effective approach. The first report of the taskforce, The case for change, outlines how we can be both more efficient in our use of public funds and also inspire a generation of new leaders at local level to make the difference it will take to solve our very entrenched problems of joblessness and poor quality of life. It is clear that decentralisation needs to be at the heart of a credible agenda to deliver on social justice – it will lead to more effective and efficient governance, and ultimately greater fairness overall.

We have some excellent new candidates coming forward at neighbourhood level, so let’s show them how much difference they can make to the lives of the community they serve.

In social care it is only by extending the parameters of the Health and Wellbeing Boards that we will, step by step, achieve fairer outcomes for older people and those with chronic conditions. In tackling youth unemployment, a grand Whitehall scheme like Iain Duncan Smith’s fails to account for local variation. The ‘blanket’ approach of the Department of Work and Pensions cannot hope to achieve what we can at local level by working with employers at to achieve the job guarantee only a Labour government can aspire to or is able to achieve. Top down inflexible programmes are failing to reach the people who need them the most.

In London and the South East, it is Labour authorities who are leading the way on providing housing for low to medium income families. New homes are the most valuable asset to invest in right now, which can then be borrowed against over the long term for further investment. Let’s finish the work that Labour started just before 2010, when housing revenue accounts were approached creatively to enable a more visionary approach to new homes.

These are not just the right choices because they are more efficient given the difficult financial times we are in. They are also the choices to inspire a generation of young activists and leaders to put themselves forward, giving them a chance to dispel despair and shape a better future.

Catherine West was the leader of Islington council 2010-13 and is prospective parliamentary candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green. The Local Government Innovation Taskforce’s First Report: The case for change is available here.  

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