Labour’s manifesto should be bold on local government. Councils are on the front line of delivery on social care, housing, the environment, economic growth, community cohesion and doorstep issues that matter most to voters. What local government does impacts on all of us, every day.
Local government is the arena where many of the Conservative’s most damaging and misleading policies have been played out; localism, devolution, the social care precept, extensions of the right to buy, and the ending of the revenue support grant. It is time for Labour to dominate that arena with a radical and innovative set of policy proposals putting power back into the hands of local people and the politicians they elect.
Labour should propose a fundamental review of how both local government and social care are funded. They are inextricably linked, and far too reliant on outdated property taxes. The piecemeal reforms of the current government in adding 2 per cent to council tax bills to fund social care, and the full retention of business rates, do not go far enough. The trend towards councils bidding for ever shrinking pots of money to be spent on projects determined by Whitehall should end.
Councils need the freedoms and flexibilities thus far only offered to directly elected mayors to use levies to tackle pollution, infrastructure issues and housing challenges. Where responsibilities are given to councils by central government, funding or revenue raising powers should follow.
With these freedoms and flexibilities should come real devolution, true localism with powers passed not just to city and town halls but to neighbourhoods as well. Communities should have the means to identify and address priority issues they live with daily, in partnership with their council. Community partnership is one means of moving local government closer to those it serves, the other is digital engagement that makes councils as accessible and responsive as Amazon or Facebook.
Local government has a vital role to play in delivering the homes Britain needs. Councils should be able to act in the local housing market in the interests of residents and the local economy, ensuring a supply of affordable homes for people working at all levels in the public, private and voluntary sectors.
Councils must be free to build and buy, whether council housing or joint venture schemes and Right to Buy should be rolled back to previous limits. The ability to manage the levels of buy-to-rent and houses in multiple occupancy s ought to be considered.
The power for councils to create, build and run schools to address local need should be restored.
Planning powers and the ability to shape the local built environment, lost in the National Planning Policy Framework, should be handed back.
The strength of local government to ensure that infrastructure, from homes to hospitals, schools to GP surgeries, roads to ultra-high speed broadband, is delivered should be the goal of a Labour government.
The structures within which local government operates is increasingly complex. Districts, counties, unitaries, metropolitan, sub-national. Different geographies for economy, health, transport. Accountability is diffuse, devolution is directionless, coordination complex.
Localism needs planning and coordination, as well as the ability to allow reform along the principle of “what works”. The multiple, overlapping boundaries that are often a characteristic of regional bodies should be replaced by clear, common boundaries. Local government should be lean, local and responsive. Lean not in the sense of outsourcing to the cheapest provider, but lean in terms of layers. Accountability and responsibility should be clear.
Councils like mine provide hundreds of different services that people need every time they leave the house, from walking along a clean and well-lit street to a meal at a restaurant that isn’t going to cause food poisoning. From building control to nightclub licensing, children’s centre nurseries to homemade for older people. From supporting SMEs to attracting multi-million pound investments.
Labour should offer a vision of local government that ensures the basics are delivered well, that ensures the vulnerable are well cared for and safeguarded, and where local and regional economic growth delivers for the whole community.
The Co-operative Councils Innovation Network and LGA Labour have dozens of examples of where Labour in power locally has risen to the challenges of rising pressures and falling funding with innovation, vision and competence, through a knowledge of the area it serves and the people who live there.
In towns and cities across the UK Labour in local government is providing the leadership and delivering the results residents want. The model for a successful Labour government in Westminster is there in council chambers and city halls from Brighton to Blackpool, London to Manchester and beyond.