“Trust is the missing ingredient” – Nandy’s levelling up speech to the LGA

Lisa Nandy
©️ Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

Below is Shadow Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Secretary Lisa Nandy’s speech to the Local Government Association conference today.

It’s a pleasure to be with you today here in Harrogate. A northern town that bucks the trend with a thriving tourist industry and arts scene. It’s a joy to see. But despite all the assets and potential in every part of the country, it is too rare. Because towns and villages only a few short miles from here, and in every part of the UK, bear the scars of a Britain that isn’t working.

For 19 of the last 20 years only two regions – London and the South East – have had the backing and investment from government to put more in than they take out. Our core cities lag behind London, and similar cities across Europe. And for too long many of our towns and villages have been written off by national government altogether. In places that once powered the world, that inheritance and contribution that should have been passed down to children and grandchildren was instead just thrown away.

Young people are told you have to get out to get on. People are growing old hundreds of miles from children and grandparents. The loss of working-age population has taken with it the spending power that sustains the high streets, pubs, banks and bus networks. And even the winners are losing. A million people make their home in London every year – the region with the highest disposable incomes by a long stretch. But, faced with astronomic housing costs, they end up worse off than in many other parts of the UK.

I saw it for myself as a councillor in Hammersmith, at the start of my political journey – representing a generation of young people held back by crippling rents and children growing up in the damp, cold, overcrowded, squalid housing that shames a nation. This is why southern leaders who try to argue for the status quo are as wrong as northern leaders who pit north against south. Because a country that isn’t firing on all cylinders cannot succeed. When we write off most people and most places, we all lose. All that talent, assets and potential.

This is what levelling up was meant to solve. And I’ll tell it to you straight. I want it to succeed. For me this is personal. It’s about my town, my family and my community. But it isn’t working. Britain isn’t working. There is a lot of analysis in the white paper, I’ll grant you that. And I learnt a lot about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Jericho. And Renaissance Florence. There is some cross-party support for the 12 missions the government has set out, though sadly little that tells us how they will be achieved. No wonder then that the bill that writes them into law allows them to be changed at will or abandoned all together. But there’s something bigger than money, power and detail missing from the levelling up plan – and that’s trust.

No new powers for places as promised, but instead a process that allows people to bid in for a little more – and only if they accept a mayor. One-year budget settlements that leave councils in the absurd situation of having to set their budget before they know what they have to spend. Hunger Games-style bidding processes that pit area against area as councils try to jump through hoops to get a part-refund on the £15bn that’s been taken over the last decade, and with fewer and fewer staff to do it. And council leaders still having to go cap in hand to junior ministers to beg for small grants and powers to do the things they know will work.

The country can’t go on like this. You know it because local government is on the frontline of dealing with the challenges of our age. Turning around four decades of decline, in which people have increasingly revolted against a political system that has written them off and counted them out. In an economy reeling from a decade of cuts to frontline services, pay and infrastructure, in the midst of an energy revolution that will leave no part of our economy or country untouched when growth is forecast to be the lowest in the G7 next year and inflation is soaring.

We meet here in Harrogate after a week of travel chaos, the first national rail strike since the 1980s. But there is a new crisis for all councils and a real crisis too for workers on the horizon, which threatens the vital services that communities rely on. The local government cleaners, home care workers, refuse collectors and teaching assistants. The people who kept this country going during the pandemic at great personal cost and who now can’t feed their own families on the money they earn – even as they care for ours. People who have spun gold out of thread during a decade of harsh, deep cuts to the communities they serve. Inflation is the last straw. They are demanding dignity and a wage they can raise a family on. When did it become so controversial to ask that our frontline workers didn’t have to use foodbanks to survive?

So my message to the government is this: they have done their job. Now you do yours. We need an active government that doesn’t sit on its hands but seeks out unions and employers to square this circle together. It’s always sensible when circumstances change, to change your mind. And any responsible government would recognise that a financial settlement agreed when inflation was forecast to be 5% cannot stand when inflation is at 9% and rising.

We have just seen our railways grind to a halt while the Transport Secretary refused to lift a finger. So I say to Michael Gove – the country doesn’t need a Grant Shapps tribute act. Convene a meeting, without delay, with the explicit aim of reducing pressure on councils so they can maintain services and support the staff who are the beating heart that sustains them. Do this for the local government workers who desperately need that pay rise. Do it for the council leaders who can’t stretch their budgets far enough. And do it because levelling up will never succeed on threadbare services. By my count, nine of the 12 levelling up missions directly rely on the delivery of good, publicly-funded services.

It is frontline workers who are experts in how to eliminate waste and spend money more efficiently. They could tell the government right now that the social care reforms will cost councils more than they get. This is what happens when you design a system without the people who’ll deliver it. They don’t need a public accounts committee report to tell you that billions are wasted when levelling up money is allocated by Whitehall instead of the communities who need it, in a clunky, bureaucratic, competitive system.

Trust is the missing ingredient. An active, participating government that treats our communities and those who serve them as partners, working together to change the system and ease the pressure. It is this approach that help us face the short-term crisis and the long-term challenge of turning around a high tax, low growth economy, and getting our country firing on all cylinders. Growth is the only way out of this crisis. And an economy that doesn’t draw on the resources, assets and talent in every part of the country cannot succeed.

The government calls this levelling up. We call it rebuilding Britain. We have done it before. After the war, the government stepped forward to build decent secure public housing. Bring public goods back into common ownership. And rebuild Britain. In the 70s, we recognised that the ambitions of women, working class children and immigrants were not matched by the opportunities on offer, ushering in the race relations acts, equal pay acts and comprehensive education. In the 90s, we responded to globalisation by opening up higher education to a generation, rebuilding schools, sure starts, the EMA and Aim Higher to give young people the chance to compete. And putting the climate challenge on the global agenda for the first time.

The golden thread that ran through all of these big moments in history was an active government that backed its people. But this time it is different. None of the challenges that fall to us can be solved from the centre. It will take a nation – that draws on all our assets. The wind, hydrogen and solar. The creativity and capacity. In every nation and region. This is the story of Harrogate. This awe-inspiring northern town was built on a natural asset – sulphur, which produced spring water that could cure a host of diseases. It was local people, who saw the potential and used it to build the thriving spa town we meet in today.

That is why I’ve come here today to tell you that the driving ethos behind the next Labour government will be to smash up a century of centralisation and restore power to people who will use it to rebuild from the ground up. This is the quiet patriotism at work in every part of Britain that draws hundreds of ordinary men and women to stand for elected office for all political parties and none. To be part of building something in the neighbourhoods where you live and have a stake.

That sense of being part of something bigger than you are. This is Britain’s great untapped asset. It’s the only way to tackle climate change, to reshape our communities, to unleash potential in places instead of managing problems. To convince the nation that everybody has a role to play and a contribution to make, and we must make it to build an economy that works and a society that can function.

We’ve found multiple ways to pull apart in recent years. Yes, No. Leave, Remain. North and South. But a house divided cannot stand. It’s time to come together and build. So here’s what we’ll do. We’ll tilt the balance of power back in favour of the creators. The people with a stake in the outcome and skin in the game. No more will we allow people to come in and extract from our communities. Those who are in it for the long haul will feel the system pulling in behind them.

So that loophole that allows landlords to buy up houses in places they’ve never set foot in, housing vulnerable people in sub-standard housing and charging inflated rates of housing benefit while the community goes to rack and ruin? We’ll close it. We’ll open up the land registry without exception because people have the right to know who owns their town, village or city. We’ll end the system that allows foreign buyers to buy up shopping centres, historic buildings and town centres and let them decay knowing eventually the council will have to buy them back using compulsory purchase orders at a premium.

And we’re working with some of the most affected councils to develop new rules around second homes so that people are in the driving seat of what happens in their own community. Because these are our places and with small changes we’ll deliver big outcomes. It takes investment. We know it does. That’s why Rachel Reeves has promised £28bn a year every year over the next decade to win the race for clean energy jobs in every part of Britain. The road to net zero is paved with a million climate jobs and we will bring them home to the industrial and coastal towns where within living memory people powered the world.

In Grimsby and Rotherham, far-sighted local leadership a decade and a half ago matched by political courage and real investment meant that young people are now powering the world using the legacy of skills from steel and mining. With backing, young people in every one of our industrial and coastal towns will have the chance to power us through the next century like their parents and grandparents powered us through the last. So we’ll do our job – but what we won’t do is yours.

The last Labour government brought administrative devolution through the regional development agencies and political devolution to Scotland and Wales. We worked with our great cities to rebuild from the ashes. The next Labour government will finish the job. But this time we will give you the powers to deliver your vision for local growth – whether it’s the control over buses to connect people to apprenticeships and jobs, friends and family, or powers to raise money like the tourist levy being pioneered by Manchester City Council.

We will commit to work with you to move away from grants to real autonomy, so you can expand housing and clean energy schemes that generate revenue and help to rebuild the parks, libraries, thriving high streets and youth clubs that make up the social fabric of a place. We know your governance arrangements must reflect unique local circumstances: the economic geography, transport links and identity that shape and define what works. So we won’t be prescriptive about how you govern. We will ask only that you are genuinely transparent, responsive and accountable to your communities. Our promise in return is that that menu of powers will be on offer to all not just some. And that our door and our minds will be not just open, but hungry, for change.

You might be forgiven for thinking you’ve heard this before. Every opposition wants to give away power. Governments rarely do. But if I’ve learnt anything, in the last decade as Wigan’s MP, it’s that no one person has the monopoly on wisdom. Democracy is hard. But the airing of different points of view, the clash of ideas, leadership that can challenge and compromise, gives us better decisions. And anyway, when did the path of least resistance ever point towards progress?

From my early 20s as a young councillor in West London helping a community negotiate through shared challenges, from hot button issues like parking permits and proposed homeless shelters, to my time as Shadow Foreign Secretary sitting with Israeli and Palestinian politicians to discuss the shrinking prospects of peace, I have learnt that politics is complicated because life is complicated. Our inability to embrace and deal with difference in politics is the sign of a system creaking at the seams.

I hear it so often from the people, especially women, who are put off or driven out of elected politics because of the state of our politics. We have to do things differently. Change only comes when you work with others and build the widest possible consensus. Driven by the needs, views and experiences of people themselves. This is the lesson of 13 years of Labour government – that the Sure Start conceived and funded from Whitehall doesn’t survive while the energy cooperative owned and run by hundreds of local people does.

This is the core of my political belief. That everyone has something to offer and something to learn. And we build change the only way that counts – together. That is what drives me, to end the paternalism, however well meaning, and to throw out the patronising attitude that Whitehall knows best. Not just because we want to, not just because we believe it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the only thing to do.

If we learnt anything during the pandemic witnessing the localism that kicked in, enabling us to roll out the vaccine and test and trace in record time, to find PPE for frontline workers and to come together to feed hungry children, surely it is this: that in the end our best hope is each other. And that means a different sort of leadership. One that partners with the community and puts them in the driving seat. Because those with skin in the game and a stake in the outcome, work harder, try longer, think more creatively and do more, because they can do no other.

This is the great untapped asset we have. It is at the core of my political beliefs. And it is why, in one of the most centralised countries in the world, dominated by Whitehall managerialism, in which the contribution of most people has been written out and written off, we will reimagine the state, push power outwards and put power back in the hands of the people who are rebuilding Britain. Kennedy once said, “we choose to go to the moon in this decade not because it is easy but because it is hard”. And we’ll do it the only way that counts. Together.

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