The Blog

Can Localism and Local Government be Core for a Labour Government?

Labour has an opportunity to build on the localist successes of the last Labour Government whilst avoiding some its tendency to adopt over proscriptive and unnecessary centralist controls and targets.

It was encouraging to hear that Ed Miliband has asked three experienced and successful Labour council leaders (actually two leaders and an elected mayor) - Richard Leese, Jules Pipe and Sharon Taylor - to lead a policy review contributing to the 2015 manifesto.

Without wishing to pre-empt this policy review, this seems an appropriate opportunity to flag up some of the issues that will need to be addressed during their deliberations.

Labour has an opportunity to build on the localist successes of the last Labour Government whilst avoiding some its tendency to adopt over proscriptive and unnecessary centralist controls and targets.

It will inherit the legacy of the Coalition Government's local government policies and in particular its disproportionate grant cuts. It won't be able to reverse every cut but hopefully it would be more sympathetic to local government than the Coalition Government. Of course, local government will continue to have to make some hard choices but one hopes many real new opportunities too.

Labour has to recognise that localism means more than simply empowering town halls. It has to embrace the empowerment of communities, an effective voluntary and community sector, and a strong civil society. It has to encourage local authorities including Labour councils to devolve to, and to share power and resources with communities, and the voluntary and community sector. It has to recognise the voluntary and community sector as a critical voice for communities and citizens which complements elected politicians.

It has to value local government and localism as being absolutely essential to a national growth strategy - and to building a fairer and more equal society.

A future Labour Government should recognise local government as a governmental partner and not simply as an agent to implement its national policies. Of course, there will always be a need for some local authority implementation of some national policies but local democratic choice should be valued.

A Labour Government will rightly wish to drive some policies and programmes from the centre and ensure universality across the country for some services. It should be ready to reach agreement with local government regarding which policies and programmes should be better controlled at the local level - some with total local democratic discretion and some with the right to vary within nationally defined parameters. And the default presumption should be a localist one. Criteria based on social democratic values and principles should determine what should be devolved for local decisions and control, and what should be retained at the national level.

Sadly, Labour is ridden with centralists and those that think that the "man or woman in Whitehall knows best". The instincts of such centralists must be challenged now and throughout the term of any future Labour Government.

There should be a national - local government constitutional settlement based on a values-driven political settlement.

Of course, a Labour Government will have to work with local authorities of all and no political control but this Coalition Government has shown that national policies can shape local action.

Whilst a Labour Government should work with local government to review and improve local government finance with potentially more local taxation and less reliance on central government, there will always be a need for some national redistribution of resources. True social democrats will not be able to accept the inequality and disadvantage that the absence of such redistribution/some significant national taxed funded grant would create.

Local government will, if it is to be effective and efficient, need some long term certainty from central government about levels of funding.

One of the last Labour's Government's more imaginative programmes was 'Total Place' which had the potential to enable planning and application of a wide range of public services and their budgets in an aligned way: allowing economies scale; sharing of resources and people; ensuring holistic approaches across traditional institutional and professional boundaries to address complex social issues; focusing on prevention; and most importantly re-designing of services to meet the needs of local people and communities. The Coalition Government's 'Community Budgets' are a similar if less ambitious approach. Given the fiscal and public expenditure constraints that will face an incoming government in 2015, a roll out of a new model of 'Total Place' within the context of the settlement mentioned above should be an early localist policy initiative. All relevant Whitehall Departments (including the Treasury) and Labour ministers should be signed up to an ambitious 'Total Place' agenda and culture.

The creation of health and well-being boards by the Coalition Government and the transfer of public health back to local government are very positive initiatives. Labour should use this aspect of the Coalition NHS 'reforms' to give local government a greater influence/if not control over strategic commissioning for health services. And it should accelerate the integration of health and social care with local democratic accountability.

Schools are key local community resources and education is critical to economic, community and personal growth. A Labour Government, whilst not returning academies to local authorities, should never-the-less in partnership with local government determine the most appropriate means of securing these resources for wider local community use. And school place planning should be a local not a Whitehall activity and most certainly not left to the market!. Labour has to agree a new role for local government in education at all tiers which is not about controlling schools but championing the interests of learners and their families. There needs to be some form of local accountability.

Economic growth, tackling worklessness and reducing poverty are all going to be key objectives for a Labour Government. Whilst these rightly will be national objectives delivered through national policies, there should be opportunities for and resources made available to local authorities and their local partners to create bespoke and complementary programmes.

A Labour Government will have to look to business to grow locally, to create jobs, and to contribute taxes at the local level. These are complex issues and cannot be resolved simply from Whitehall - town halls and local communities have major roles to play too. Local authorities will need to foster entrepreneurialism; and create a culture of enterprise, growth and innovation in their place - this should build traction with the Government as well as add much local value.

In particular, the Work Programme and its resources should be devolved to local government to deliver projects that actually work for local unemployed people, communities, the voluntary and community sector, businesses and employers. If the Work Programme as currently deployed has proved anything, it is that one size definitely does not fit all.

Local authorities are well placed to co-ordinate major initiatives on issues such as youth unemployment and the development of 'whole place' talent and skills programmes

Likewise local authorities should demonstrate what can be achieved by being inclusive exemplar employers; and they should require their partners and suppliers to be so too. Local government should seek to find common cause and not confrontation with trade unions.

Local authorities should be encouraged to use their planning, land usage, community programmes and procurement to drive local growth and employment. They should be encouraged to invest in developing the capacity of local SMEs and the voluntary and community sector; and to enable investment capital to be available to such bodies.

Investment in local infrastructure and in particular social housing will be a critical part of Labour's economic strategy; and local government has a major role and contribution to make to this.

Public services have to change to meet changing requirements, and user demands and expectations; and in response to available public expenditure. This will require radical ideas and a great deal of innovation. It should involve a greater role for the voluntary and community and wider social sector in service design, commissioning and delivery. It will also require a 'grown up debate' about what services should be universal and which should not, and about local authority statutory duties. Less money means ultimately doing less, as well as doing some things very differently.

Local authorities should involve citizens, and service users including business users and their representatives in local strategic commissioning and budget allocation. The local voluntary and community sector must be encouraged to participate and to act as a voice for communities and local people.

Whilst a Labour Government should not seek to direct local authorities as to how they commission or deliver public services, it should encourage them to do so in ways that: fully meet the spirit and letter of the Best Value (Social Value) Act; encourage local economic growth; meet wider environmental social and diversity goals; and encourage innovation. Procurement policies and practices must be aligned to wider policy goals. The ethical responsible entrepreneurial capitalism agenda that Labour seeks to champion can be driven in part through smarter public procurement. A Labour Government should encourage and facilitate this.

Local government and the communities they serve will face many challenges in the years after 2015. It is essential that Labour has a coherent set of policies for localism and local government - and above all, the will to implement them. These policies must be at the heart of and integral to the delivery of Labour's wider social, economic and environmental agendas.

The 'Leese-Pipe-Taylor review' has the opportunity to ensure that such policies are core 2015 manifesto commitments. I wish them well.