Comment: Local government must stand up for itself before it’s too late

Local councillors, harangued or forgotten as they so often are, are in many cases the finest public servants we have

 

Last week David Cameron wrote to his local council to complain about cuts his own government had demanded. Yes, really.

It says a lot when the cause for the prime minister’s embarrassment is a leaked letter from the leader of a flagship Tory council. It is almost as though Cllr Hudspeth simply could not conceal his ire at the leader of his party complaining about cuts to frontline services and referring to a drop in funding of £72m (37 per cent) as a ‘slight fall’.

As angry as I’m sure Cllr Hudspeth was, this was far more infuriating for someone like me: a councillor in Labour-run Brent. For, as Hillary Benn pointed out in 2014, councils in poorer areas have been suffering even deeper and harsher cuts than those in richer areas. Quelle Surprise – most of the poorer councils are Labour ones, too.  

You would be forgiven for assuming that what I am writing here is purely a partisan attack. But it isn’t. Away from Brent, I act as an intermediary between local councils, communities and homebuilders. This means that I regularly talk to councillors of all political hues. And they are by and large united in their fears for the future of local government.

The truth is that local government has been taking a pounding from central government for decades. When Labour was last in power, there was, as everyone knows, far more money moving around the system. Therefore the dialectic that existed between central and local government was less noticeable. But the structural flaws were in place nonetheless.  

So something has to change before it is too late. Before councils which have already had more than a third of their funding wiped out have half of it taken away, and then even more. Imagine a horrific choice like whether to support the homelessness grant or 30-minute care visits not being a choice at all because both were instead removed. That’s the bleak reality we will face by 2020 if things continue as they are.

What is needed is a proper, coordinated response from local authorities across the country. The Local Government Association has simply not done enough to lobby on behalf of local government. Nor are isolated councils attempting to pass illegal budgets the solution to the problem. Such a tactic is like the charge of the light brigade and it is time that local government outmaneuvered the lumbering Westminster war machine.

So I hope that when the visionary Cllr Jim McMahon is elected as the MP for Oldham West and Royton, he speaks truth to power and takes the concerns of local authorities right to the heart of government. If he will lead the fightback, he will have an army of councillors behind him.

It would be beneficial to the Labour Party, too, if Tom Watson’s warm and welcomed words about how Labour councillors are often undervalued by the party machinery were echoed by others. Labour has thousands of elected politicians all over the country. With Labour out of power in Westminster until at least 2020, it would be wise to deploy us in the frontline.  

I love local government for its power to do as much, if not more, good than the talking shop that is parliament can. Local councillors, harangued or forgotten as they so often are, are in many cases the finest public servants we have.

It is councillors who arrange for streetlamps to be fixed to make frightened pensioners feel safer, for littered and dirty streets to be cleaned up and for rogue landlords to be brought to justice. Without them, this would be a meaner and a harsher country than it already is.

A new member of the Labour Party recently told me with relish that she was going to take my seat on Brent Council. In the context of local government’s perilous future, I wonder whether that seat I fought so hard to win will even exist by 2018. I hope for her sake that it does.

Sam Stopp is a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Brent and is the chair of The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness

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