Party conferences are no longer on the BBC all day as they were in the 1980s and 1990s when interest was kept up (at least at Labour and Liberal Democrat ones) by dramatic defeats of the leadership and passionate debate. Yet the 2014 conferences have been seen as important – given they are the last before the general election, and many pundits anticipating another hung Parliament. Not wanting to give hostages to fortune, however, has meant that all three conferences, despite highlighting the economy, were rather light on details and broad on rhetoric.
The LGiU briefing (members only) on the party conferences highlights what we see as the battleground for the general election and it summarises the key policy announcements made by the three parties. We consider how public finances will look after May next year and what it means for local government (not good news of course).
But for local government one of the main questions has to be what about devolution? The devolution question following the Scottish referendum was debated widely at each conference, particularly in the fringes. Unsurprisingly, local government itself did not feature prominently in any of the conferences – on the main stages at least: there was plenty of debate at the fringes. The fallout from the Scottish referendum for local areas is still, however, a hot topic among localists and some political commentators.
There was a reminder to Labour delegates about the impact of the Scottish referendum debate and outcome on local government here. Opening the Labour conference, the leader of Manchester City Council told a full hall – “The debate should not be about devolving power to Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but devolving power within the nations.”
Other leaders emphasised the importance of devolution to local areas in fringe meetings and on the platform. Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle city council, said the game had changed post-referendum: “If the main party leaders in Westminster think that we can all sigh a huge sigh of relief and go back to the status quo, then they are sorely mistaken. What the Scottish debate has done is given voice to the deep seated concerns about the centralised nature of our country. The genie is out of the bottle.”
He added: “There’s a real danger that the north is squeezed between an increasingly powerful Scotland and a London assembly and a mayor who promotes the interests of the City, and other cities and regions have no counterbalance to those centres of power.”
Northern Labour leaders were clear that they were not going to tolerate their region being left further behind. Forbes wants more tax retention powers and to be able to streamline service provision and integrate relevant services.
William Hague, who chairs the committee examining plans for “English votes for English laws”, signalled “greater local autonomy” would not mean “new regional tiers of government” when speaking to journalists on the opening day of the Conservative conference. He said that district and county councils would not be torn up by the devolution committee, and any more powers to the regions would take place within existing structures. Eric Pickles is also clear that there should not be any further local government reorganisation.
Some Conservatives spoke strongly at fringe meetings in favour of greater devolution to local government (although others like John Redwood were far less keen). At a CIPFA fringe meeting ex-local government minister (and Conservative current vice-chair for local government) Bob Neill said that 50 per cent of central government spending should be devolved to local government, including 100 per cent of the business rate. He suggested that could start by devolving property tax and that stamp duty land tax is a very obvious thing to be thinking about localising. He also said that neither regional government nor an English parliament was “the answer” to the question of how to devolve power in England, adding that the establishment of the Welsh assembly “sucked power out” of local government and “emasculated” councils and “Proper financial devolution to top-tier authorities in England is the place to start”. The three parties seem to agree that reorganisation and new tiers of government are not appropriate.
Local government needs to take advantage of the fierce debate that arose around what devo max should mean for Scotland, and what the implications are for England, to press for greater transfer of powers and finances. The referendum debate, however, wasn’t primarily so dynamic because of the official campaigns by all the political parties. It became alive because of the activity, campaigning and interest at the grassroots. Community organisations, civil society as a whole, local people – they all should be involved in reshaping democracy at the local and regional level. This isn’t necessarily or even at all about reorganisation or structural change.
All of the parties are lauding greater localism (not for the first time) but again there is no clear consensus between or within them. What should be devolved and to whom: whether devolution could be piecemeal or universal; how to ensure democratic accountability and transparency – these are issues that all the parties and local government itself need to confront urgently in partnership with communities and civil society.