England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

GE17 Looking for new ideas on localism? Don’t look in party manifestos then

Janet Sillett laments the lack of vision for local government in any of the manifestos published last week.

Of course no-one will be surprised that localism isn’t a key issue in this general election (it never is). It would be unrealistic to announce sweeping constitutional change for sub-national government when the government (any government post 8 June) is caught up in the mind blowing process of leaving the European Union.

But there is no sense of a grand vision for local government from any of them – or even of much vision at all. Visions in themselves don’t cost legislative time. They all acknowledge that subsidiarity is a good thing and that devolution has to continue, but that it is fundamentally about some consolidation of what has already happened so far – the Conservative manifesto; or that it is being swept up into a constitutional review – Labour’s manifesto; or that the powers of the centre need to be reduced in favour of the local – the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Yet these expressions of localism lack force. It is easy to talk the talk when there is little concrete to make it reality. And even if all three parties talk grandly about moving power away from Westminster it isn’t clear that they actually mean down to the local level.

There are not many new ideas on financing local government either. The huge funding pressures on many councils is not seriously addressed – there is no sense that any party has a plan for sustainable funding (so maybe not having a grand vision reflects reality rather than a lack of imagination). The Conservatives are sticking to their policy of demanding a referendum for council tax increases above the limit they set. Labour promises yet another review of council tax and business rates (though more interestingly they do mention land value tax as well). The Liberal Democrats promise to set up a government process to deliver greater devolution of financial responsibility to English local authorities.

I am not saying that there aren’t lots of proposals that wouldn’t directly and indirectly affect local government. There are many, and some could have significant implications, such as the changes to social care in the Conservative manifesto. Or the commitment in the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos to lift the cap on borrowing so councils could build many more council homes. And maybe these specific commitments around services will have more long lasting consequences than any structural reforms?

There is one area, though, where our next government will have to at some stage signal more clearly what they mean by their ‘support’ for subsidiarity – brexit. Will repatriating powers and laws lead to a radical rethink of where power lies now and where it could lie in a post brexit future? There is little to suggest it will in these manifestos. No party seems to be promising that local government will be a genuine partner in deciding how EU law should be repatriated.

Yes we know this was a snap election. That the political parties had only a week or so to put together coherent manifestos. That they all have to some extent included proposals on key issues for local government such as social care, transport and industrial strategy.

But I would still suggest that there is a lost opportunity here to show that all the talk of devolution and localism actually means something real. Labour says that it will introduce a ‘presumption of devolution’ where devolved powers transferred from the EU will go straight to the relevant region or nation. The Conservatives emphasise subsidiarity in relation to the devolved nations. But there is no explicit statement from any of these three parties that local government is the obvious place to decentralise many powers to.

Janet Sillett is LGiU’s Head of Briefings.

For more LGiU General Election material visit our GE17 project page.