Ed Miliband has made a major announcement about how local government will be reformed under a Labour administration. It’s a complete game-changer; a big vision and, for those of us who aspire to be Labour councillors, a hugely challenging one.
Building on the Adonis review, which calls for massive devolution of economic power to the regions, its key proposal is that instead of receiving an annual settlement from Whitehall, local authorities will receive long-term settlements which will give local authorities greater freedom to plan and invest. The plan balances important new roles for local authorities – in childcare, in education and training, in managing health and social care, and in fighting crime – with a much more rigorous system of financial scrutiny. In other words – local government will be more powerful, more strategic, better-funded, better-scrutinised and above all key functions of the state will be made more responsive to local needs.
It’s a huge and challenging vision. Challenging for government, because it means that Whitehall – and the Treasury in particular – will have to hand over power on an unprecedented scale. It will mean a massive battle, as the trend in recent years has been the other way: Whitehall will powerfully resist losing so much of its power. In particular it’s going to be no mean feat to prise the dead hand of the Treasury off vital regional and local economic and spending decisions; but there is an increasing realisation that it has to be done. It contrasts powerfully with the Tory agenda of using centrally-directed grands projets to stimulate growth while using its localism agenda to ensure that local government becomes little more than a mechanism for commissioning services from the private sector. This is about real empowerment.
It’s massively challenging for local government too. Councillors (and officers) will need to up their game considerably. There will be no place for the kind of amateurism that we have seen in Brighton and Hove in, for example, approving the bail-out of i360 with Council-guaranteed loans when the business case just doesn’t justify the claimed regeneration benefits; or a Green-Tory alliance agreeing to bid for £8m of funding for what is essentially a concept scheme at Valley Gardens – a weak and over-optimistic business case for a poorly-defined project being supported on the grounds that it brought more money into the city regardless, while huge local transport challenges remain unaddressed. Scrutiny matters; and it means that elected representatives – and officers – will need to justify their decisions much more rigorously.
And long-term funding arrangements, combined with greater freedom, will fundamentally change the way in which central funding is agreed; what used to be a settlement will become a negotiation. And, once again, that means professionalism and rigour.
And, in terms of the debate around the Green administration’s proposed 5.9% Council Tax rise for Brighton and Hove, it’s a game-changer too. Jason Kitcat has said on numerous occasions that the Tory and Labour funding plans are identical; but Labour’s proposals take us far beyond existing structures and funding arrangements. The Green administration offers an unrealistic short-term fix, which got rejected last year; Labour is offering long-term, funded change, making local government more accountable and giving local government the stability for long-term planning. Brighton and Hove’s Greens, stumbling through their final year in office, struggling to find candidates for next year’s election and kicking vital decisions on issues like school places and housing into the post-2015 long grass, just aren’t in that game.