Local government is critical to us winning in Westminster and delivering our 21st-century socialist policies – but for that to happen, we need to develop a vision of local government that genuinely trusts local people to make decisions for their communities, and offers the resources and powers to deliver on those decisions.
In our over-centralised governance system, local councils lack the proper power to intervene in their local economies and invest in their local communities. This has surely contributed to the feeling of powerlessness and falling behind of local communities that the Brexit vote exposed; and while it has been Brexit that has dominated the headlines, the story of how our local councils have been hollowed out and the devastating impact of a decade of austerity is just as important.
Between 2010 and 2020, local government funding has been cut by some 60%. This means a funding gap of £3.1bn this financial year, projected to be £8bn by 2024. When Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid announced £1.5bn for social care in September, there was scant recognition that this is a mere sticking plaster on the deep and gaping wound that the Conservatives themselves created. The funding gap in social care this year alone was estimated at the time to be £2.6bn.
Alongside care, children’s services, public health and youth services all face acute funding shortfalls. This month alone there have been stories of two-thirds of homelessness services being ‘in the red’ and a ‘cash crisis’ in children’s services for nine in ten councils. In 2018, we even saw an emergency bailout for Tory-run Northamptonshire Council, which was about to go bankrupt.
These huge numbers can almost feel too large and abstract to grasp. Yet it is felt in the human lives made lonelier, more isolated, less safe, less healthy, less enjoyable and at greater risk. Our local communities have been robbed of their communal spaces such as libraries, swimming pools, green spaces, playgrounds and parks.
These are impacts our local councils – and our local councillors – have been on the frontline of fighting against this and of having to find a way through as the Tories have repeatedly and callously passed on the responsibility and blame for their cuts agenda.
Our local councils and councillors have been on the frontline of Labour’s fight against the worst effects of Tory austerity, and they have had to find a way through as the Conservatives passed on the responsibility and blame for their cuts agenda. Despite the best efforts of many local Labour councillors and mayors, it is clear that in five years this government will do a great deal more damage. As Labour leader, I will work with Labour councillors to hold the government to account and resist their attacks on our local communities.
The Tories cannot be allowed to evade responsibility for their central government cuts to our local services. They must be held nationally responsible for every building that has to be sold, for every youth service and community centre that has to close and for every child put at risk because of cuts to vital services. As Labour leader, I will work with councillors to fight the Tories every step of the way – and give councillors and the communities they represent the tools, resources and political support to make a real difference and change people’s lives for the better.
To do this, I want to use community organising and campaigning in partnership with our local councillors. We all know that good local councillors are community organisers and leaders. It is the actions of those local Labour councillors, who demonstrate day after day that Labour is on the side of our communities, that are key to laying foundations to a return to power at Westminster. And by strengthening our community organising in this way, it can give us a stronger foundation for more Labour councillors elected at local parish, town and local authority level and broaden the diversity of representation with more women, BAME, disabled and LGBT local councillors.
We also need to develop a new and compelling vision for local government for the next election. This involves devolving genuine power to local levels of government and, crucially, the funding to make it real. And that is more than just reversing the cuts of the past ten years. We need to oppose the moves by the Tories that penalise deprived areas and reward Tory shires in funding reviews – and we have to look at how to develop a needs-based funding formula that delivers more funding and focuses it on where it’s most needed. As a party, let’s have a discussion about how regressive council tax is and how local councils could have more flexibility.
We should also discuss how we can devolve the powers councils need to deliver the services and infrastructure their local communities want. We are in the middle of an escalating housing crisis. Local councils need to be free and to have the resources to undertake large-scale council house building, to hold property developers to account on contributing to local infrastructure and affordable housing and stop land banking. And local councils should have the power and resources to deliver on insulating homes and developing local energy schemes.
Although we are in opposition nationally, we also must not forget the power and change we can and are making at a local level. As Labour leader, I want to work with local councils across the country to help insource their services and to use public procurement to support supply chains and work with local organisations to create good unionised local jobs, as well as being a good employer itself.
I also want to work with local councils to put a new generation of municipal services at the heart of our promise to transform our country at the next general election: expanding and integrating local public transport; bringing in local democratic control of schools; providing public health and youth services; establishing services for active-living and combatting loneliness; providing social care and services for independent living.
These things are all essential to an ambitious agenda of creating a green, democratic and socialist economy. But it can’t be a top-down process – it needs local councils and communities to design and decide what they need. In a similar spirit, local councillors are a key voice and have a hugely important role in everything we do as a party. Making sure we are ready for the elections in May would be one of my first priorities as Labour leader.