England needed a bold vision on devolution – the Government failed to deliver
By combining devolution with localism, Labour would address the funding crisis facing councils and rebuild our struggling communities, writes Jim McMahon MP
Devolution built on weak foundations is not the answer. Any new settlement must be inclusive and have a clear offer for every city, town, village and coastal community across England, and in doing so must respect local identity and belonging. Devolution hand-in-hand with localism provides a real opportunity; it’s a shame it was missed.
A decade of austerity has hit local government hard. More than 800,000 staff have been lost while demand for its range of services has rocketed. Cries for the social care crisis to be resolved have been largely ignored, with even further burdens placed on hard-pressed council tax payers.
Housing is in crisis with a desperate lack of affordable homes, while the private rented sector takes advantage of weak regulation and lack of choice for tenants. Neighbourhood services have been stripped to the bone with the impact felt in almost every community, particularly in youth services.
And this context is important because these are the foundations any devolved settlement in England will be placed on. To build up we must address the funding crisis which has hit the heart of our communities.
Councils need more funding, and they have been let down. But they have also been failed on the need to fundamentally reform local government funding, including council tax which is the most regressive direct tax in the system, and business rates which have undermined the future of our high streets as well as important community anchors such as pubs, banks and Post Offices.
We must also raise our ambition. While the Queen’s Speech promised to “level up” sub-regional devolution, it is self-evident that even the most advanced devolution deals in London or Greater Manchester sit in the shadow of many other city regions around the world.
If all that’s on offer is a shallow devolution settlement with the levers of powers still sitting in Whitehall, we have missed an opportunity to address the outstanding question of England and its future as a devolved nation.
We should be ambitious and recognise the importance of regional development, strategic planning and the overdue need to deliver on the promise of creating the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.
That immediately focuses attention on the investment imbalance in England, with the lion’s share of funding still directed to London and the south-east while the rest fight for what’s left.
This must be addressed through increased infrastructure funding and investment to rebuild local economies, including with the expansion of the cooperative economy.
And so, it’s right to ask what would Labour do differently? First, hardwire a devolution-first principle for local government.
We see huge advantage in communities being given a greater say over the future of the places where they live, and the public services delivered in their name. We would bring together public services in a single community plan which draws together resources to meet the priorities of local people.
We also believe councils should have oversight on all public spending in their area, so our commitment to local public accounts committees remains firm.
We would encourage more active ways for the public to become involved, including participatory budgeting, citizens’ assemblies and valuing the role of our councillors as frontline community convenors working together with civil society, businesses and public service providers.
There is a need to see power passed down, but there is also a need to review accountability at a local level. For instance in CCGs, LEPs and the fragmented education system which sees academies and free schools being largely unaccountable, some removing local governing body representation completely.
And as we build up, we will assess the most appropriate level of accountability. By working together in our sub-regions, our councils have pooled resources, reformed public services and been able to attract new powers over health and adult skills, but much more can and should be devolved.
We needed a revolution, but the offer was at best basic administration.
Jim McMahon is Labour Co-op MP for Oldham West & Royton and shadow minister for local government devolution