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Devolution is the answer to Labour’s woes

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Labour’s local election humiliation could herald potential Conservative general election success, but many hope that it could also spark much needed fresh thinking on local government policy.

Commentators, including Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, argue that the magnitude of the stuffing the government received at the hands of the electorate means only radicalism can save it. “Moving power towards localities is a potentially powerful message for a government looking for a ‘narrative’”, he wrote (LGC, 8 May).

A wounded prime minister Gordon Brown has not been short of advice from the media, fellow politicians and academics as he desperately bids to revive his premiership.

So, with two years at most to go until the general election, does an opportunity exist? Or will councils fall foul of the whims of a wounded and increasingly desperate administration?

The two weeks since the local elections have seen Labour aligned thinktanks such as the Fabian Society, Progress and Compass go into overdrive with suggestions for how the government can win a fourth term.

Heavyweight Blairite and former home secretary Charles Clarke who addressed a Progress conference on Tuesday said the government needed to increase public and private investment in “locally accountable” public services.

Making important public services like policing and health more accountable to citizens is a passion of communities secretary Hazel Blears. And just because such provisions are no longer likely to be included in the Department for Communities & Local Government’s empowerment white paper, due this summer, does not mean they will not be included in legislation being drawn up by the Home Office or Department of Health.

Local Government Association insiders still talk enthusiastically about councils’ status as first among local equals being given a more eye-catching and easily-digestible ‘wrapping’ than local area agreements (LAAs).

“LAAs should be seen as the wiring diagram,” said Alan Wardle, LGA director of public affairs. “But they need to get the surrounding language right.”

Mr Travers believes the opportunity for movement is around city regional government; elected mayors for cities or city regions; and council funding. While movement on the latter would almost certainly be universally welcomed by local government, the first two by no means command anything like a consensus among councillors or councils.

City regions

City regions appear to be the policy area where local government has the best chance of securing concessions from government. Whitehall seems to be ready to devolve power to groups of councils prepared to commit to working together and which offer credible solutions to the issues where Whitehall has failed to make progress.

These include tackling persistent inter-generational unemployment; building new houses and putting in place the workforce and transport infrastructure that will boost economic growth outside of the UK’s London/south-east engine room.

The success of Greater Manchester’s councils in getting to the verge of securing significant concessions on skills, transport and housing demonstrates what can be achieved through mature collaboration. The recent consultation document on the government’s sub-national economic development and regeneration review effectively invited other groups of councils to follow in their footsteps. The Local Transport Bill making its way through Parliament will allow genuinely ambitious groups of councils a greater say over transport provision.

But even in this fertile area, there are signs the government would like Greater Manchester’s councils to go further. In negotiations civil servants have voiced enthusiasm for the directly elected city regional mayor model. As John Merry (Lab), Salford City Council’s leader, said last month, civil servants will expect “a delivery structure that delivers the equivalent of mayoral structure”. Convincing Whitehall that this can be done will be tough.

Also last month, Steve Broomhead, chief executive of the Northwest Development Agency, said his organisation wanted to see leaders commit to a “federal senate” with leaders bound to make funding decisions through a system of qualified majority voting. Only then would the agency be happy to delegate funding decisions to the city region level.

It is not as though the rest of the country’s major conurbations are clambering over each other to put in place similar systems. If ministers feel they have two years to ‘complete’ the move to city regional government, they won’t get it done by waiting for councils to come forward of their own volition.

Even without creating larger city regions, Ms Blears’ support for the mayoral model is apparent the question is how far she will go and how quickly she will move in implementing it.

A round table meeting at the DCLG last week discussed how getting more elected mayors in place could be made easier it is worth noting that whether or not it should be made easier was not on the agenda. A report released by the Institute of Public Policy Research last month called for the government to impose the mayoral model on every council and allow them the option of petitioning for referendums to get rid of them after a four-year period.

Although mayors have something approaching cross-party support at Whitehall, there is virtually no support for them among Labour councillors (what few remain) or at the grassroots level.

Policy discussion documents sent out by Labour last week as part of its manifesto process restated the government’s enthusiasm for elected mayors. Ann Lucas, a Labour councillor on Coventry City Council and a member of the party’s National Policy Forum, predicts it will spark “quite a robust debate” when party figures meet in July to hammer out the final details.

“The rank-and-file membership don’t like mayors,” she said. “It’s something Tony Blair pushed and the current leadership seem keen on, but the rank-and-file are vehemently against elected mayors.”

Finance

As always, finance remains the area least likely to see meaningful change. As former Treasury adviser Chris Wales wrote in a paper for Mr Brown’s favourite thinktank, the Smith Institute, recently: “No government ever lost an election by not addressing local government finance.”

This is not to say reform of council funding is not being discussed. At a Smith Institute event last Wednesday, LGA chairman Sir Simon Milton (Con) took the opportunity to set out a number of steps to reform council funding. It was more likely his efforts were aimed at the shadow front bench than the current government.

The Conservatives are scheduled to release fuller local government policy proposals in the summer, but the party remains committed to retaining council tax capping and the cancellation of any planned revaluation exercise.

Labour’s manifesto policy document on creating sustainable communities gives an insight into how the party hierarchy sees local government policy progressing: enthusiasm for unitary governance, whole councils and single-member wards; support for elected mayors; an emphasis on the importance of city regions in promoting economic growth; and renewed support for empowered communities and neighbourhoods through ‘double devolution’.

If this Labour prime minister is prepared to push through a radical devolution of power to the local level, it may well be to a system of local government that bears little resemblance to the one in place now.

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