When many people think of councils, they think of the potholes on their road being filled, bins being collected and the leisure centres or parks they use for the odd fitness session. Or it may be that they think of a council tax bill, fly-tipping or streetlights. These are the day-to-day issues that make our communities better – or worse – places to live, and the ones that every Labour activist hears on the doorstep.
Councils also deliver the public services that ensure the vulnerable in society are looked after and have the best chances in life, like adult and children’s social care. They build new council houses despite barriers imposed by successive governments, operate the public health services that reduce the drain on the NHS, and ensure that there are enough school places. They do this despite government funding for councils having been cut by 60p in every £1 that the last Labour government provided in 2010.
Austerity has forced councils of all political persuasions to make difficult decisions about the services they offer and how they are delivered. But unlike Tory councils, which have generally just slashed services and cut jobs, Labour councils have remained ambitious for their communities and have been resolute in putting Labour values into action. Different councils have found different ways to protect and prioritise vital services, and found innovative radical solutions to new problems.
Unfortunately, the problem with localised council innovation is that it often doesn’t break through into the consciousness of the national Labour Party. One exception has been Preston Council’s pioneering work on community wealth building, which has been praised by leading figures such as John McDonnell. As a district council, Preston isn’t responsible for social care, which swallows up almost two thirds of upper tier or single tier council budgets, but their emphasis on keeping public spending in the local economy has captured the imagination of many party members across the UK. The ‘Preston model’ is just one of many brilliant innovations devised and delivered by Labour councils across the country, all of which should be championed by the party.
Take housing. Labour councils are doing their bit to tackle the housing crisis, increasing the housing supply in their local areas and ensuring that residents have good quality, affordable housing. Norwich City Council built 105 RIBA award-winning Passivhaus standard houses, meaning that they’re built to the highest environmental standards with minimal energy use. Plymouth City Council has a strong military tradition, and the council has employed ex-service personnel to build council homes, some of which will be used to house military personnel, with the rest earmarked as affordable housing.
Helping children and young people have the best start in life is crucial to the work of local government. Tameside Council is giving care leavers free driving lessons to help them with a skill that is otherwise financially prohibitive. Redbridge Council has set up a bespoke intervention programme to protect children from being exploited through county lines and gang activity. Southampton City Council is tackling child hunger by providing free fruit, vegetables and yoghurts in primary schools across the city.
None of these things would happen without a Labour council – they are all an example of our Labour councils putting the values of equality of opportunity and fairness for all, no matter what your circumstances, into action. What sets Labour councils apart is that they aren’t adopting a one size fits all approach, instead tailoring what they are doing to local traditions and needs. But it isn’t just specific projects that Labour councillors are showing their values in action – our councils also have a wider vision about how our local economies should work.
To invest in the town centre, Gedling Council bought Arnold Market, which allowed them to make improvements to the market itself and to the town centre. Stockton-on-Tees Council helps new businesses to test their trade by providing space on the high street as well as access to financial and marketing advice. Knowsley Council opened the Shakespeare North Playhouse, strengthening the local arts scene, increasing tourism and boosting the local economy. Labour-run Coventry City Council will be the UK City of Culture in 2021, bringing arts and culture activities to the city throughout the year.
Next time you think about a council, or talk about a council, by all means think about whether your bin has been collected on time or whether the pothole outside your house has been filled. But also think about the pioneering actions that Labour councils are taking to change lives. These examples just touch the surface of what is being done – if you’re interested in reading about more of the positive work, you can visit our website dedicated to the work of Labour-run councils.