Eric Pickles’ “quiet revolution” is well underway. Localism is on life support, councils and their services are in intensive care and ministers are encouraging radical surgery of councillor roles and numbers.
This has left the most vulnerable communities even more so, but also it begins to undermine our democracy itself. In our unwritten constitution local government provides an important check and balance against the power of the state. It is being dismantled. Complaining about ‘fairness’ goes unheard. Councils are told to stop whinging and to ‘man up’ – yes, ‘man up’ – equalities impacts are also being abandoned.
Labour both locally and nationally has to step up and provide an alternative. However, with little money around either now or in the future what can be done?
My own council in Barnsley is attempting to change things and I believe there are lessons for a future Labour administration in Westminster.
In our borough, which has a huge dependency culture and a weak economy, we have set ourselves three priorities:
First, the economy. We won’t become prosperous from a bigger council or a life on benefits. We need a bigger and better economy with more businesses and jobs. Every spare penny we can muster will go on a five year economic growth plan worth over £25m.
It is not the traditional approach but an essential one even in times of budget reductions. We need the business rates to pay for services in the coalition’s brave new world. In truth a future Labour government will have to do much the same.
Our second priority is improving people’s potential. Our economy won’t grow without the right skills and people won’t prosper either. The biggest school buildings project in Europe is being followed by a positive academies programme and a revamp of leadership in our schools. Comprised with a major growth in apprenticeships we are trying to get our young people on the front foot. As a council we have committed to at least 2.5% of our workforce being apprentices. Sadly, under the coalition education is becoming elitist and young people are being priced out of educational opportunities. A future Labour government must address this.
Our third and perhaps most challenging priority is to change the relationship between the council and the community – a managed shift from dependency to self-reliance, from provision to prevention and from council knows best to personal choice. We need to take demand out of the system and allow resources to go to where they are needed most.
To encourage more of this we are creating six area councils with devolved budgets to provide for local choice and need. Members will commission activity from local communities to increase resilience and enterprise at the same time. Twenty one ward alliances will also have devolved budgets to allow members and community groups to grow capacity in the voluntary sector and build community ownership of the issues they face.
It is a different but positive future role for councillors. We must take responsibility for local leadership and problem solving but it is a challenge for our time, skills and creativity. At the same time our own central provision will change as budgets reduce but privatisation to large predatory national companies will be a last resort.
First we will try to change internally by being more flexible and innovative. After that we will encourage staff co-operatives and mutuals and if that won’t work try to keep our spending in the borough through local businesses and social enterprises.
We want to keep our spending local. Our staff are up for the challenge and despite the huge cultural change it is an exciting one despite the cuts.
So what are the lessons from this for a national Labour administration? Firstly it needs to create a new contract between central and local government. The government needs to free up councils to meet local needs. Equally, we need to help a labour government deliver its priorities and service objectives. A negotiated settlement between the two underpinned by a finance system based on needs and independently set would reinvigorate local democracy itself.
Secondly Labour nationally also needs to change the relationship between citizen and state. Economic growth will produce revenues to reduce the deficit and help services but it won’t be enough. Like my own council, Labour will need to reduce demand in the system if the NHS is to survive and older people are to be cared for.
An enterprising borough needs to be matched by an enterprising Britain. Only that will give Labour the tools to do what only it can do – produce a fairer, more balanced society where the most vulnerable are not constantly looking over their shoulders and where we support everyone – not just a chosen few – to be their best.
Steve Houghton is leader of Barnsley council.
Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council is featured in One Nation Localism: How Labour councils are delivering fairness in tough times, a new report published by the LGA Labour Group available here.
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