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

Manifestly local: Will Labour find a role for councils in its devolution vision?

The Labour manifesto is out and, of course, the LGiU have two key questions: where do Labour stand on devolution and what do Labour promise for local government?

The good news is that Labour promise to ‘end a century of centralisation.’ The manifesto’s authors also understand that successful devolution is not simply about parceling power out to different geographical areas. Meaningful redistribution of power involves moving away from the ‘old command and control politics of doing things to and for people, but never with them.’ Labour’s plan is to involve communities in local decision-making processes and to make local services more accountable to citizens. It’s fair to say that the manifesto supports true devolution.

How exactly does Labour propose to end centralisation? Well, the party plans to replace the House of Lords with a new elected Senate of the Nations and Regions to ensure that Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and all English regional interests are represented in our national legislature – a bold plan that I look forward to hearing more about.

And in order to end the concentration of English powers in Westminster, Labour have an English Devolution Act. The Act will involve the creation of an English Regional Cabinet Committee to be chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by major city and county leaders, alongside any relevant Secretaries of State. Will this committee provide a viable avenue of co-operation between regional and national leaders, or will it become a talking shop devoid of any real power? Time may tell.

More excitingly, the English Devolution Act will constitute, ‘the biggest devolution of power to our English city and county regions in a hundred years.’ Encouragingly, the Act is set to acknowledge the importance of allowing both cities and counties greater powers. Proponents are keen to avoid the all-too real trap of concentrating devolved power in urban areas at the expense of rural communities. The plan is to devolve £30bn in funding and grant city and county areas new powers over economic development, skills, employment, housing, business support and local transport systems. Councils will also be able to require certain types of shops to apply for planning permission and communities will have the power to review betting shop licenses. These are indeed all areas that would benefit from local control.

But Labour’s English devolution proposals are mostly pretty vague. What will city and county regions’ greater powers look like? Will all councils be given greater control over business, skills and housing as a matter of course? How much control will local authorities have over council tax? Does increased power over ‘business support’ translate into, for example, greater retention of business rates (something councils called for overwhelmingly in our local government finance survey)? Or will all councils have to form larger combined authorities to be in with a chance of benefitting from Labour’s devolution drive? Indeed, this manifesto seems to overlook the humble council…

Though perhaps I’m nitpicking. Labour makes its commitment to devolution clear, and since when was vagueness unusual in a General Election manifesto?

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

  • Give local authorities a role in strengthening enforcement against those paying less than the national minimum wage.
  • Work through local authorities and community organisations to make 200,000 homes per year warm for those on low incomes.
  • Pool health and education service funds across local areas.
  • Bring health and social care commissioning and budgets together at a local level to join up services.
  • Introduce new Directors of School Standards at a local level.
  • To help young people and families get on the housing ladder, give local authorities the power to give first call to first time buyers on new homes in areas of housing growth.
  • Give local authorities powers to reduce the number of empty homes, including higher council tax on long term empty properties.
  • Strengthen community safety partnerships to give local people a role in setting priorities for neighbourhood policing and a say over the appointment of local police commanders.
  • Deal with the problems of air pollution by giving local authorities the powers they need, backed up by a national framework.

See also…

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