This is a tough time for communities up and down the country and for our politics. Given what people are going through, and the scale of the challenge we face, many wonder whether politicians have the answers any more. This is often fuelled by a feeling that too many decisions are being taken too far away from where people live and work. And in some places, and in some minds, there is nothing short of a crisis of confidence in politics itself.
The cuts in funding affecting councils are not modest and – because of the unfair way the government has distributed them – they are most severe in the poorest areas. And yet at the same time there are rising pressures, in particular looked-after children and social care. Local authorities are having to climb a downward moving escalator just to try and stand still.
Much can be done to deliver efficiency savings, but this won’t be enough. Although Labour wouldn’t have cut so deeply and irresponsibly we can’t pretend that we wouldn’t be making difficult decisions if we were in government. Austerity is forcing us to think in new and creative ways because we simply cannot afford to do things as we have done them before.
It is this economic and political crisis that provides the context in which the Labour party’s policy review is taking place. England is too centralised, and localism – enabling people to do things for themselves – is an important part of the answer. There are three questions we should consider.
First, at what level should decisions be made?
For every area of policy, we should first ask who is best placed to do this? What should be done nationally, locally or in between? What tools do people need to get the best outcome in improving people’s lives and where should national standards be applied to locally delivered services?
Second, how do we make less money go further?
As finances will be very tight, we have to look at total public spending in an area – whether geographical or covering policy – and ask how it can best be spent, with a clear preference for the centre, working together to pool funding locally to do things[sj1] . Money passed down by each Whitehall department should be given as single pots, where possible, so that decisions can be taken locally about how best to use it for the purpose for which it was given.
Third, who should take decisions?
I do not think there is a case, or indeed any public appetite, for regional government; in other words an additional tier of elected politicians. The alternative is straightforward – make better use of the elected politicians we already have. On the structure of local government, any changes should be decided from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. The most exciting development in local government at the moment is the way in which councils are coming together in a way that makes sense to them and their area, such as the Leeds city region and councils in Manchester.
This shows that existing structures can join together in different ways depending on geography or what needs to be done. It’s a really good example of not starting from scratch but instead of getting the current system to evolve. It also ensures strong local democratic accountability in taking decisions and spending public money. And as to how that democracy is led – ie whether there should be a council leader or a mayor –that should be decided by people locally too.
So, if these are the principles of a new localism, what might their application look like?
Take economic development, where I have proposed that as part of a new ‘English deal’ counties as well as cities, and districts as well as boroughs, should be able to come together to do what they think is right to boost their local economies. Just about every council leader I have talked to wants the right powers and freedoms to enable them to develop their local economy so they can play to their strengths; for example, the automotive industry in the West Midlands, and the aerospace industry in a number of English regions.
Just as our politics is unbalanced between the centre and the local, so is our economy. That is why powers over planning, housing, training, skills, infrastructure, transport investment and helping to find people work should be part of the role of local authorities, and in particular the new groupings of councils that are coming into being.
Or take social care. We know that within a decade, councils and the NHS will be overwhelmed by the costs of care. And yet for older people, the pull is too often towards hospital and care home because of the way funding and services are organised. Instead of spending a few hundred pounds at home to help people live there independently – a grab rail, a walk-in shower, someone to help you dress in the morning – taxpayers are footing hospital bills in the thousands for people who do not need, or want, to be there.
The fundamental question that Andy Burnham has asked is this: is it time for the full integration of health and social care with one budget and one service co-ordinating all of a person’s needs – physical, mental and social? In short, ‘whole-person care’. A service that starts with what people want – to stay healthy and comfortable at home – and which is built around them. If the NHS was commissioned to provide whole-person care, a decisive shift could be made towards prevention. This is why he has suggested that with health and wellbeing boards coming to fore, they could undertake this commissioning, with clinical commissioning groups supporting them with advice.
These are just two examples of the kind of thinking that is emerging from Labour’s policy review. Now is the time to think big. After all, when we look back at how our communities grew and developed, to a time when poverty, disease and slums scarred our land, what changed that? Where did the libraries, the parks, the hospitals, the schools, the houses, and the clean water come from? It was all the result of social conscience, civic pride, and collective will – localism in action – in which people did something extraordinary without waiting for a circular from Mr Gladstone or Mr Disraeli!
That is exactly the kind of attitude of mind we have to nurture if we are to enable people to believe that we can do something about what faces us; caring for an ageing population, developing a stronger and sustainable economy, paying a decent living wage, building a lot more social homes, supporting credit unions to overcome the loan sharks and setting up renewable energy generation schemes locally to help reduce peoples’ bills.
Labour should back localism because the time is right, it’s the way in which we can get the most out of the money we have, and because it will help to renew trust in politics.
I am passionate about politics – public service – because I believe in its power to transform lives and communities. Politics is not just about politicians but politicians and people working together. The greatest sense of pride we feel in our lives is when we look at something that we have achieved, and turn round and say to each other. ‘Look what we were able to do.’
We may be short of money but there is one thing we have an inexhaustible supply of – ideas, effort, determination, resourcefulness, and a will to succeed. If we make the best use of all of these I think we can look forward to the future with hope and confidence.