Hilary Benn begins our interview, under the fig trees in Westminster’s Portcullis House, with a rather uncomfortable expression.
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To be fair, our rather impertinent opener has been: “Does Labour believe there is still a role for local government, given the huge cuts it has suffered?”
The shadow communities secretary’s discomfort, it seems, is because Labour sees authorities as “fundamental” to democracy. Of course it has a role, stupid, he appears to want to say.
Fair enough. His party’s leadership has in fact spent the early months of 2014 setting out its local government policy stall and in the most concrete terms since Ed Miliband took the reins as party leader.
Setting the scene was Mr Miliband in a speech last month. “The next Labour manifesto will commit to a radical reshaping of services so that local communities can come together and make decisions that matter to them,” he said.
Days later the MP Jon Cruddas, who co-ordinates Labour’s policy review, gave an explicit message about what such a commitment would mean. “In 2015-16 there will be no more borrowing for day-to-day spending and we will have to make cuts too,” he told a New Local Government Network conference. “We will inherit a state that in many areas has reached the limit of its capacity to cut without transformational change.”
“Transformational change”, “further cuts” and “radical reshaping”. What could this all mean for local government? It’s not completely reassuring.
According to Mr Benn, it adds up to an ambitious reshaping of local government, going far further than the coalition’s reforms – but with some very significant differences, in approach and attitude at least.
So while Labour champions the coalition’s community budget experiment, Mr Benn thinks it is a “pale imitation” of Total Place, the attempt by the previous Labour administration to get public services to work more closely together. “We have to be more radical than the coalition because of the financial problems,” Mr Benn says.
Labour would also accelerate the “tide of power” currently flowing down from central to local government, he indicates. His party would extend to rural areas the coalition’s city deals, which currently pass decision-making and financial powers from Whitehall to urban areas. “I support city deals, but why should it just be cities? Why shouldn’t counties come together to look at the economic needs of their areas?” he asks. With such a move, Mr Benn and his colleagues will, ironically, be responding to the pleas of many Conservative councillors.
Mr Benn says Labour ministers would be more open-eared than the coalition. His Conservative counterparts’ efforts to support local government in coping with its huge financial difficulties has suffered a “serious credibility problem”, he says.
“Eric Pickles and Brandon Lewis could say it is tough. But the impression they give is that they don’t understand the challenge of local government’s financial position,” he says.
However, Labour does look set to keep some of the coalition’s more unpopular local government finance policies. For starters, Mr Benn expects his party to keep council tax referendums, under which local authorities must poll their residents if they are proposing to set the tax above a ministerial-set ceiling.
Crucially, Mr Benn links the need for a referendum to his leader’s popular campaign to tackle the country’s ‘cost-of-living crisis’.
“Councils are only too aware of the cost of living crisis. They are doing their best to keep council tax down,” he says.
“At the same time we are seeing a growing number of authorities – including a large numbers of Conservative authorities – saying that, given the financial difficulties we need to replenish our base. I am not proposing to change the referendum arrangements because things are very, very difficult for a lot of people.”
Labour’s support for referendums should not, however, be seen as a full-blown endorsement of the coalition’s approach to council financing. The way central government funding is distributed across England is described as “unfair” by Mr Benn, particularly when it comes to how some cities in the party’s northern heartlands are treated.
“We will have a fairer system for distributing the money than we have at the moment. It is not justified to see Liverpool seeing a 27% reduction in their spending power – the government’s preferred measure – while Wokingham [in Berkshire] receives an increase,” he says.
The party also has the current government’s new homes bonus in its sights. Mr Benn is not convinced that the policy alone is encouraging authorities to drive housebuilding. “It also takes from areas of low housing demand, which tends to be areas of greater need and deprivation,” he says.
Labour will distinguish itself from the coalition too in its attitude towards council chiefs, Mr Benn indicates. While coalition ministers have decreed that the “traditional model” of chief is “unnecessary”, Mr Benn appears to strongly support the role.
“Chief executives provide professional leadership to the staff of local authorities. The best work really, really closely with the leader of the council and members of the executive. It is a really, really important role because they have got a complementary role to the leader,” he says.
Mr Benn sees himself as a “localist” – he believes that councils can be trusted to act in the best interests of their residents.
This commitment extends to the recent scenario in Brighton & Hove City Council where Labour councillors blocked the authority’s bid to put a council tax rise out to a referendum. Denying residents their say at the ballot box was surely the wrong thing to do democratically? Mr Benn disagrees. “The decision about council tax is for councils to make for themselves. And as a localist, it is for local authorities, including local Labour groups to [act in] the best interests of their areas,” he says.
But how can local government be sure that this self-proclaimed localist will remain true to his principles should he get his hands on the real levers of power next year? How does a career politician resist making their mark through unnecessary interference?
“If we win in 2015, judge us by what we do,” he says. Further reflection prompts a more specific answer, as he points to the shadow work and pensions secretary’s pledge to give councils a role in commissioning government-funded back-to-work schemes. “I think it is genuinely significant that Rachel Reeves is going to co-commission [the work] programme,” he says. “And you can’t do that [co-commission] as a secretary of state without listening to people.”
This ‘co-commissioning’ policy was set out by Ms Reeves in another key shadow cabinet speech, earlier this year. Labour would establish a work programme that “actually works”, she said at an event held by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a thinktank with close links to the party.
“Under this government we’ve seen a billion pounds paid out to contractors on a scheme that has seen more people return to the jobcentre than find a job. A Labour government will not be renewing those contracts in 2015-16.”
“In place of the top-down, bigger-is-better model imposed by this government, our replacement will be jointly commissioned by central and local government,” she said. Co-commissioning would help councils to integrate back-to-work initiatives with their economic strategies and connect them more closely to local businesses.
Mr Benn also points to his pledge to give councils powers to curb the proliferation of betting shops and payday lenders on high streets as another localist policy.
He will not, however, be drawn on the backtrack by the shadow health secretary, whose camp had mooted a belief that councils, rather than clinical commissioning groups, should control £89bn of health spending. The party’s review of integrated care last momth backed CCGs retaining their commissioning role.
“We will have to reflect on the [Sir John Oldham] report,” is about as far as he goes. “What is clear from that report is that there is a shared interest between hospital trusts in an area, the clinical commissioning groups and councils.
“In coming together, how are we going to deal with the growing elderly population, stop people going into hospital by supporting them in their communities an get them out of hospital when they have had the medical care?”
In this new era of public spending restraint, the health and social integration drive is, Mr Benn says, “the biggest social policy question we face in society”.
This is one of the reasons, he and his party believes that local government needs a political leadership which is collaborative instead of combative.
It’s this attitude too which distinguishes a Labour in waiting from the ministers currently stalking the corridors at the Department for Communities & Local Government, he claims.
“When you are dealing with this enormous challenge, you want to think that the secretary of state is on your side while you make difficult decisions, to listen, to take your corner, to find out what you need in terms of powers,” he says.
“But Eric Pickles is having a pop from the sidelines.”