England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

Manifestly local: Or is it all too regional from the Lib Dems?

With the Liberal Democrats striving to position themselves as the go-to coalition partner, what’s in their manifesto for local government – and what’s likely to stick?

From the front page of this manifesto to the launch speech itself, it’s clear that education is the showstopper of the Lib Dems’ election offering. (And of course the Manifesto Working Group was chaired by David Laws, schools minister). They’ve boiled their manifesto pledges down to five core policies, presented in technicolour glory on the front cover. Education, prosperity, fair taxation, environment and healthcare.

“In Government in the next five years, we will once again put the life chances of our children at the heart of the government’s agenda.”

(Nick Clegg at the launch of the 2015 manifesto front page, courtesy of www.libdemvoice.org).

Throughout the lengthy manifesto, they’re presenting a story of success in government – on education, yes, but also on the economy and on political reform. Success that they want to build on – as the potential partner in any future coalition.

But beyond the front page and the education headlines, what’s in it for local government? There are a large number of specific powers promised to local government: to reduce the number of betting shops, to choose sponsors for new schools, to improve local transport ticketing. Despite this, it’s not a localist manifesto. Where local authorities miss out, it shows. In key areas such as tackling terrorism, for example, local authorities are left out in the cold. The need to find ways of protecting communities from terrorist sympathies has been a growing area of concern for local government.

Although housing didn’t make it as far as the front cover, councils fare better in this chapter. Alongside their pledge to build 300,000 new homes and 10 new garden cities, there’s a bouquet of powers offered to local government by the Lib Dems. The ability to levy up to 200% council tax on second homes, for example. The option to attach planning conditions to new developments. The devolution of control of Right to Buy to councils. Many will be pleased to hear that they also want to end the permitted development rights for converting offices to residential properties. These are of course sweeteners for a number of proposed requirements, such as the need to maintain a 15-year housing plan.

So much for the detail. What does the party promise for local government power and prestige? Our snapshots of Lib Dem policies, taken last year, pointed to a new settlement for local government, with more power devolved from Westminster. There’s a distinctly federalist message in the manifesto, with ‘Home Rule’ for the nations of the UK – and ‘Devolution on Demand’ for councils or groups of councils working together. There’s a clear acknowledgement that ‘one size fits all’ devolution doesn’t work; that different regions move at different paces and don’t always want the same things. The Lib Dems’ stated aim is to “rejuvenate” local government in England.

Like other political parties, the Lib Dems want groups of councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships to form convenient structures for the handing down of power. But are regional assemblies the right vehicle for further devolved powers? The Liberal Democrats see regional devolution as a natural extension of the existing City Deals, with central government ceding power to ‘natural regions’ such as Cornwall and Yorkshire. What about areas where the boundaries are less clear-cut? Or where the idea of a regional assembly is less popular?

Whatever happens at the general election, the Lib Dem ‘fortress seats’ – where local MPs remain personable, popular figures – may hold fast. What the Lib Dems think of local government could well be very important. So once the dust has settled on the wheeling and dealing of forming a coalition, if the Lib Dems are in government, which promises will make it through to the Queen’s Speech?

Appearing in front of Andrew Neil in February, Tom Brake MP suggested that of the promises on the front page of the manifesto, only the pledge to finish the job on reducing the deficit would be a ‘red line’. Once the coalition negotiations start, all bets are off.

 Other policy commitments that will be of interest to local government include:

  • Prioritising the transfer of transport, housing and infrastructure funding, skills training and back-to-work support to local areas.
  • Working with Local Enterprise Partnerships to improve their effectiveness and coordination.
  • Encouraging Local Authorities to use crowdfunding and alternative finance models to improve credit access in their areas.
  • Ending ideologically motivated interference in local planning decisions for wind farms by Government Ministers.
  • Extending the principle of Digital by Default to local government.
  • Delivering a reformed and improved Work Programme in partnership with English local government.
  • Giving democratically accountable Local Authorities clear responsibility for local school places planning.
  • Securing local agreement on full pooling of budgets between the NHS and care services by 2018.
  • Working with Local Authorities to extend separate food waste collections to at least 90% of homes by 2020.
  • Working with Local Authorities to integrate transport networks in rural areas.
  • Allowing Local Authorities more flexibility to borrow to build affordable housing.
  • Introducing the Single Transferable Vote for local government elections in England.

See also…

For more detailed analysis see our detailed policy briefing on the three manifestos (LGiU members only).