Comment: We need a clearer vision for the future of local government

Cllr Muhammed Butt, Leader of Brent Council

It has been refreshing and invigorating to see serious debate in the Labour movement about the long term future of local government in the wake of yet another disastrous settlement from Eric Pickles.

Labour local authorities have been beacons of hope for residents over the past two years, developing innovative solutions to the multiple crises we face and campaigning effectively against Government policy. However, we have now reached the point where effective local authorities aren’t enough – we need a clearer national vision for the future of local government, and urgently.

By now we all know the challenges; our budgets cut by a third over four years, predictions of continued cuts of 7% a year thereafter, changing demographics and a reduction of non-social care spending from over two thirds of our budget to just 10% by 2020. No matter how well we manage the cuts and prioritise key services, this will mean a significant reduction in the range and depth of services provided by local government.

As David Blunkett highlighted last week, this is the first time in living memory that the welfare state has shrunk at the same time as people are experiencing a serious fall in living standards. Residents will understandably begin to ask why they should still pay their Council Tax bill when the services they use most are disappearing. Turnout in local elections could fall even further and local democracy risks becoming unsustainable.

Labour Councils have resisted the siren calls this time round, and managed the cuts effectively and creatively. Many have become hothouses for innovative and effective policy solutions – a very positive sign. We have relentlessly focused resources on our priorities, we have protected service outcomes for residents rather than specific delivery methods, we are making the most of collective consumer action, we have shifted resources from treatment into prevention and we have begun experimenting with new ways of engaging with residents, including community budgets, which could help close the growing democratic deficit in local politics.

However, we now need a clearer national vision for the future of local government to match our local actions. A future Labour Government will have no choice but to take radical steps if we still want councils to exist in twenty years’ time.

The policy options are limited, but clear. We must either increase funding grants to local government, allow Councils to generate income from new sources or take away statutory obligations and give councils more freedom to decide which services to provide for their communities and how. The need for continued cuts after 2015 means that in reality the only option will be a balance between giving local authorities genuine control over their funding streams (unlike the Coalition’s failed attempts), revisiting statutory obligations and encouraging far greater involvement of local people in the design and implementation of local services.

Each of these options will require a far greater level of devolution of power and trust to both local authorities, and local people – an idea we have not always been comfortable with as a party.

But we need to know that the party will take these radical steps, and we need to know soon. We need to know because it will affect the spending decisions we are taking now for the next few years, we need to know as it will be a central pillar of our campaigning up to next year’s local elections and we need to know in order to give hope to all those who believe local government is a fundamental and irreplaceable part of our democracy.

 

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