Friday, January 24, 2014

Local Government under Labour - Setting the Agenda

On Wednesday evening I went to the Local Government Association (LGA) headquarters in central London for the launch of a new report on the future of Councils under a Labour Government.

Paul Hackett from the Smith Institute opened the meeting and noted that we were in Bevin Hall in what use to be "Transport House", the former national offices of the T&G union.  There must be various labour movement ghosts of the past in this room and building.

Paul hoped that this report will help bring together Labour Councils and the Parliamentary Labour Party. 

Clive Betts MP was first speaker. He thought that after the the fundamental attack on local government by this present government we cannot just go back to the way things use to be. There is also a disconnect between the political class and those we serve that has to be addressed. 

Labour needs to think in opposition now since we will be too busy when in government.
Next speaker was Hilary Benn MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Hilary thought that there is a struggle between local and central government. In the NHS we need national standards but there is an appetite for change for what local government provides. 

Interestingly he thought that the referendum on independence in Scotland will settle the Scottish Question but then the English Question on decentralisation will have to be answered. 

He talked about the crisis of confidence in our politics and the failure of consumerism, where far too many people think they can just sit back and do nothing but moan about the way things are run and don't realise they need to contribute. 

He ended by stating his belief that the tide is flowing towards real localism.

Cllr Lib Peck, the leader of Lambeth Council spoke about canvassing and speaking to people who said they "don't do voting". She wanted to ask them "what bit of voting do you not get?". 

The next Labour government needs to be bold. Emphasis the core values of public service. Councils need greater income raising powers, the ability to borrow and planning powers to get rid of too many payday loan and betting shops.

Final speaker was Cllr Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council. He asked what Labour authorities wanted to do? They want to encourage economic growth and jobs. End social determination but not by the tools of the past. Instead of national programmes there should be  devolved economic development.

I asked a question to the panel that a future Labour government needs to trust Local Authorities with taxation and spend. I appreciate there is a battle with our Treasury team over expenditure but times have changed and in the Party we have largely got rid of out trot head bangers who wrecked local government in the 1980s. We can only get rid of the centralised nanny state if you trust the people to hold councils to account for their money.

Hilary responded by saying that while he wished that there was a political consensus on income raising for local authorities there is currently not one.

There followed a wide range of interesting questions and answers. I think that it is fair to say that there was a consensus about the need to devolve real power from the centre and a wish that Labour made its mind up quickly before 2015 and if elected, took no prisoners and got on with things from get go. 

Check out of course, the excellent Chapter 10 of the report: "Troubled families in troubling times" which just happens to be written by my local MP, Lyn Brown, Shadow Fire and Communities Minister :)
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