The Conservative’s astonishing victory last week makes clear that their manifesto is the only one in play but given its vague wording, and tricky parliamentary arithmetic, there is still a lot of fog around.
One area of clarity is economic policy. The Conservatives have positioned local government – or at least local government in big cities with devolution deals – as a principal driver of economic growth.
The ‘northern powerhouse’ announcement, and more widely the elected mayor/big area/big deal approach was an important Budget announcement and is prominent in the Conservative manifesto’s references to local government. The sector now needs initiatives that allow counties and smaller localities to get in on the act.
For many authorities, economic growth measures will have less impact than fiscal, social care and housing policy. £12bn of welfare savings, as yet unidentified, will certainly hit those at the bottom of the income distribution.
Of the £165bn of welfare spending managed by the Department for Work & Pensions, more than £95bn has been ringfenced in pension benefits. The rest will have to come from areas such as housing benefit (£18bn), disability living allowance (£13bn) and employment and support allowance (£13bn). The savings will accrue to the Treasury, the impact often to councils.
The long-promised integration of health and social care will move further forward in this parliament, with NHS England and its structures now able to bed down after a long period of uncertainty. Greater Manchester, again, shows that combined authorities and city regions are priority locations for testing new approaches and again, the wider sector has to make sure it isn’t out of the room when the rules are set.
Finally, the right-to-buy, which most analysts thought would be a negotiating chip for coalition-building, is now a hard manifesto commitment: a promise to be kept. Details again are sketchy but what has been announced implies a shift of social housing into poor areas, with no guarantee that replacements will match losses. It suggests the ‘Parisification’ of prosperous cities; just what the new MP for Uxbridge, one Boris Johnson, insisted he never wanted to see in his city.
The Conservative plans are ambitious but although it was a famous victory for the party, it is still a very narrow majority – particularly if whittled away by by-elections and defections, it may be hard for the government to get some bills through the house.
Even if Labour cannot rely on the SNP, who will probably abstain on England-only issues, wider battles, particularly around the European Union, could gum up parliamentary business with rebellions as they did in the mid-1990s. Under those circumstances, some of the most controversial measures may never make it to the statute book.
Anthony Zacharzewski, founder, Democratic Society