Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Steve Reed to Labour conference in Brighton today.
Conference, I want to thank local government workers for everything you did during the lockdown. Our communities wouldn’t have got through the crisis without you. Their representatives are sitting here with us today. We can’t do this too often. Conference, please join me in a round of applause to show our appreciation for everything our local government heroes have done during the pandemic.
Conference, the Conservatives’ assault on local government isn’t over. We got rid of Robert Jenrick. But now we have a new Secretary of State who wants to cut and marketise our council services, just like he did our schools and our justice system. He’s even taken the words “local government” out of the name of the department. But Michael Gove isn’t wrong about absolutely everything: after all, this was the man that said Boris Johnson wasn’t up to being Prime Minister!
Conservative cuts aren’t the only problems facing our communities. Too many have been held back because they don’t have the power they need to make the change they want to see. Keir Starmer has made clear that we will only build a fairer Britain if we open up power. That’s why the next Labour government will power up Britain with the most radical programme of devolution our country has ever seen.
We will make sure people up and down this country can take back control of their own destinies. Take a look at our town centres. High streets are the vibrant hubs of their communities. But too many are struggling to recover after the pandemic. The Conservatives have taken power from local people and let developers create dead zones by turning temporarily empty shops into low quality housing that can never be shops again.
Downing Street’s council tax hikes clobber working families and choke off local spending. And they’re putting local shops out of business with sky high rates that mean they can’t compete with out-of-town online retailers. Labour won’t let our high streets die. Labour will level the playing field for British businesses by cutting – and eventually scrapping – business rates, and replacing them with a new, modern system of business taxation fit for the 21st century.
This will be a fairer system that shifts the burden of business tax, so that our high streets, and the new generation of start-ups that will shape them, can thrive in Britain. And we’ll make sure developers work together with local communities to revive our town centres.
From my time as a council leader, I know that regeneration works best when councils, communities and developers work together. That’s how we will build the genuinely affordable new homes people need. The Conservatives want to gag residents and let their developer donors bulldoze local neighbourhoods. We’ll stop this in its tracks. Labour will put local people in the driving seat by guaranteeing them a say over where they live. We’ll stop land-banking with a ‘use it or lose it’ law that incentivises developers to build the million unbuilt homes which already have the green light from councils.
The Conservatives have spent 11 years deepening inequality across our country, cutting the poorest councils harder than the richest. And they’re making councils fight each other for scraps of investment that’s only a fraction of the funding they took away in the first place. But while they starve local services of funding, Gove and Johnson squander billions on crony contracts for their wealthy mates. Britain’s better than this. But we can only build a recovery that works for everyone if we prioritise investment for the places that need it most.
Labour will give people in every region more control over the investment and infrastructure their area needs to bring in good new jobs that pay a fair wage. Only Labour understands you can’t spread prosperity out without pushing power down. We can’t tackle the inequalities of opportunity that hold people back if we don’t first tackle the inequalities of power that lie behind them. But here’s the difference between our party and the Conservatives. We trust people; they don’t.
Public services work best when local people have a bigger say. I know this first-hand. As a council leader, I gave children in care and their carers control over their own services – and they transformed them into the best in the country. They used their own life experiences to improve the support they needed. Put simply: people power works. That’s how Camden Council is transforming lives for struggling families by letting them shape their own support and how Wigan is improving public services and value for money by giving communities more control across the board.
We must learn from the best of Labour in power locally if we want the British people’s trust to govern nationally. That’s why Labour will guarantee people a voice and the power to use it in the workplace, in their communities and over the public services they use. Over a century ago, working people forged our party in the coal stacks and furnaces of the industrial revolution. They demanded the power to build a fairer future.
Today as we face the digital revolution people need power to tackle the very different challenges we face together: automation, the climate crisis, globalisation and an ageing and growing population. The answers to the problems we face lie in our communities. That’s why Labour will end the deadening over-centralisation of this wasted Conservative decade. We will trust people up and down our country with the power they need to shape the communities they want to live in and the lives they want to lead.
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