Devolution should mean giving more power to councils

1st July, 2014 7:00 am

Whatever the outcome of September’s referendum on Scottish independence, there needs to be a radical change to the relationship between Westminster and Whitehall and the regions and cities of England.

We have muddled through now for a decade and a bit with an extremely asymmetric model of devolution – relatively big powers for Scotland, some for Wales, a little bit for London and the old centralised model for the rest of England once John Prescott’s regional devolution schemes were rejected in the north. This leaves England as the most centralised system of government in Europe.

UK centralised power London devolution

The situation has got worse rather than better under the Tories as Eric Pickles’ rhetoric about localism has turned out to be nothing but hot air. Pickles himself has interfered at a micro level in local councils, dictating to them whether they can publish free newspapers to inform residents about services. Immediately on taking office he axed plans to create more unitary councils (i.e. powerful single councils rather than the duplicatory system of having both county and district councils in some areas). He has shown utter contempt for councillors themselves with petty attacks such as removing their pension rights, making it more difficult for cabinet members overseeing hugely important services and budgets to do this full time. Michael Gove’s Free Schools have accelerated the erosion of the role of local education authorities, so that an increasing number of schools are answerable only to him as Secretary of State and to no one elected in the area the school serves.

Most importantly, local government has borne the brunt of four years of coalition austerity. Because other spending departments have been protected and Pickles was either unable or unwilling to stand up for councils in the spending round process, the cuts to local authority budgets have been devastating and have left many councils left only able to deliver statutory services and having to abandon many discretionary services which are vital to the quality of life of local residents. The axe has fallen heaviest on the councils in the poorest areas of the country, where services are most needed, because Pickles has rigged the formula used to allocate funds so that it favours Tory areas. Labour controlled councils have lost 16.9% of their budgets on average since 2010 whilst Tory councils have only lost 6.6%. The ten poorest areas have suffered even more, with Liverpool and Hackney seeing 27% of their funding cut whilst Wokingham and Surrey Heath have actually seen their funding increased!

eric pickles

Cynically, the Government has assumed that disproportionately cutting local councils compared to central government departments, and within that cutting the Labour-run areas the most, would mean voters might blame local Labour councils for the cuts and Labour would descend into infighting over the tactical response to this as it did in the 1980s when the most left wing councils tried to confront Thatcher by refusing to set a legal rate. This hasn’t worked because voters are not that gullible and Labour councillors have been remarkably united and disciplined.

This is not a sustainable model if Scotland becomes independent. The rump UK is likely to have a Tory dominated Parliament far more frequently than now if there is no anti-Tory contingent of MPs from Scotland. Areas in the big cities and North that are virtually Tory-free will be condemned to perpetual Tory government making all the big decisions that affect them with no local mandate. That’s a recipe for civil unrest.

Nor is it sustainable if Scotland stays in the UK but with devo-max, a big extension of devolved powers. Why should Scotland get to make key decisions about the scale and shape of local services while the West Midlands or the North East have to implement cuts designed in Whitehall by Tory ministers from the Home Counties?

Labour needs to be campaigning for and designing a proper pattern of regional and local devolution for England.

This needs to be based on the principle of subsidiarity. Power should be devolved to the lowest, most local level, nearest the people, at which it can be effectively exercised. The test should be “is there an overwhelming reason why this needs to be decided in Whitehall and Westminster and not at a lower level?”

Principally, this should mean devolution of power to councils. Elected local councillors should be empowered to take key decisions regarding configuration and provision of all the key public services that serve their area. For instance, when we talk about a middle layer of support and accountability in education between schools and Whitehall, why reinvent the wheel when we already have an elected tier called local councils. Proper local democratic oversight of the NHS should also be introduced – if councils can be trusted to oversee public health services, why not all health services, rather than just the scrutiny function they currently have? If councils want to delegate service delivery decisions further to local communities (“double devolution”) that should be for them to decide locally, it shouldn’t be imposed by Whitehall.

At the same time we should deliver the most obvious saving there is in public services and abolish all the remaining two tier (county and district) councils so that every part of England has one powerful unitary council which is clearly accountable to residents for all local services. It is absurd that there are swathes of the country with two sets of councillors (often actually the same people claiming two sets of allowances), two sets of council back office functions, and total confusion for residents about who delivers and is accountable for what. The situation we have in my new home town Oxford is unacceptable. The key big budget services like schools and social services are run by Tory and Independent county councillors, none of whom are elected from wards in the city. This is profoundly undemocratic and unaccountable. The city council meanwhile, with not a single Tory councillor, has no power over some of the services that residents most care about. In areas where council housing has been transferred en bloc to a registered social landlord, some district councils are little more than a planning committee plus filling in the entry form for the annual Anyshire in Bloom competition. And why should people in Dover or Margate have decisions about their schools taken by a County Council based in Maidstone, over 30 miles away and a town many of them have never visited – feeding a disengagement and bitter sense of neglect. It was the same when I was parliamentary candidate in Castle Point, people in South Essex thought that the County Council persistently neglected them at the expense of the more rural Tory areas.

If we are going to devolve power we also need to devolve control over the money needed to pay for services. The funding formulas need to be reviewed so they properly support the needs of the most deprived communities. Legal safeguards need to be introduced to stop a future Eric Pickles rigging the formula so that it produces perverse outcomes like a funding boost for affluent Surrey Heath in the middle of a savage round of cuts. We should look at ways of ring-fencing parts of the local government budget so that proper funding of local services has statutory protection from the kind of excessive share of central government austerity it has taken in recent years e.g. a statutory guarantee that each local authority will receive a certain minimum level of per capita funding.

Regional government should be introduced for each English region but on a slimline model with a small regional assembly like the 24 member GLA responsible only for those services such as policing, transport and strategic planning and economic development that need to be coordinated across several local authorities. I am agnostic about whether such assemblies should be directly elected or elected indirectly by and from the councillors in their region.

If we are going to stick with an unelected House of Lords let’s ensure all the nations and regions have a voice there by allocating seats automatically to the leaders of the largest city councils and the new regional assemblies.

The re-empowerment of local government needs to start in our own party. Historically local government has been the second pillar of Labour in the country alongside the trade unions. Yet it has no direct representation at Annual Conference, a handful of seats on the National Policy Forum and only two on the NEC. The fact that there is a currently a seriously contested election for these two seats, between Simon Henig and Jim McMahon and between Ann Lucas and Alice Perry, is great, but actually all four would be excellent NEC members and at a minimum there should be four local government reps on the NEC. There should be greater representation of councillors on the party’s regional boards (some have only one councillor rep) and council Labour Groups should have delegates and the right to submit motions to regional and national party conferences.

The changes brought in under Refounding Labour mean the levy paid by councillors is now one of the main sources of funding for the national party. It was already a major source of funding for many CLPs. Yet we don’t hear the party having to listen to what councillors want in policy or organisation or candidate selection in the way that the unions get their voice heard.

Thirty years ago local government was an albatross round Labour’s neck, with the “loony left” epithet applied by the press and Tories to councils which were more interested in having their own foreign policy, creating nuclear free zones, or confronting the Tory government in a doomed municipal Charge of the Light Brigade than collecting the bins and improving schools. Even 15 years ago a succession of failing local authorities embarrassed the Labour government, let down residents and opened a second front where the Lib Dems started to make inroads in inner city areas.

Now Labour’s councils are a source of pride for the party and an example to the electorate of what Labour in power can achieve. Labour councillors are the backbone of the party’s campaigning.

Isn’t it time we gave local councils the powers and funding they need to truly represent and deliver for their residents, and councillors the voice they deserve in our own structures?

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