England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

When the party’s over

This article was originally published in The MJ.

So that’s it for party conferences 2013.  A month of late nights, folding chairs, cheap white wine and intense debate is over for another year.  As the politicians, activists, lobbyists, journalists and assorted hangers on head wearily for home, it’s time to ask what it all means.

It was clear that we are already well into election mode, as for the first time ever, we have a set date for the next general election, now a mere 19 months away.

National media coverage inevitably reflects this perspective: the big stories were Labour’s perceived swing to the left, hardening conservative policies on welfare and immigration, Miliband’s consolidation of his leadership (again) and the Boris and Dave rapprochement (again).

In these grand narratives, local government barely gets a word in edgeways.  But, while the set piece local government speeches may have been fairly peripheral, there was much in the headline policy announcements that could have a significant impact on how councils operate.  One could argue that, while no-one quite said so, the local government remit was at the heart of the policy debate.

The Liberal Democrats backed a call to give councils the power to limit the number of betting shops in their area.  Labour pledged to return back to work schemes to councils, to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020, to tackle land banking and to allow councils to decide on local transport schemes.  Meanwhile Eric Pickles re-emphasised his desire to support local shops and high streets.

Despite their differences, these core policies from all three parties reflect a recognition that it’s local councils that play the key role in shaping our towns, cities and villages, in creating the conditions for local economic growth and jobs, and in ensuring the quality of our built and natural environments.

We already see good examples of that all around the country: whether it is Liberal Democrat Cambridge championing community pubs, Labour Southwark building 10,000 new homes, or Conservative Staffordshire driving growth through a cross border City Deal.

It is good to see national parties finally grasping the obvious point that it is local government that is best placed to drive local economic renewal.  But there are two other key agendas that need to be brought into the same conversation, but which the structure of national politics tends to separate.

While there is an increasingly lively debate about the nature of the local economy, a lot of the national discussion about growth still focuses on big infrastructure projects, and inward investment:

City Deals and the new single growth funding both push towards sub-regional solutions and combined authorities and it looks likely that Labour’s proposed right to grow would do the same.

That level of growth is hugely important of course, but it is vital that it is properly integrated with a more local economic perspective.

In practice, the co-ordination of high-street and regional growth agendas are likely to surface some quite chunky partnership and governance questions, especially in two-tier areas and there are real concerns about whether the LEP infrastructure as it currently stands is capable of resolving these.

Just as importantly we need to overcome the tendency to treat growth separately from the public services reform agenda.  For councils, faced with rising demand and declining resource, that means demand management, co-production, innovation and hard choices, all the complex difficult processes that are brought together under the rubric of ‘more for less’.

In the end economic growth is unsustainable unless you can create places that people want to live in: that does not just mean jobs and infrastructure, but public services that fulfil their needs, homes to live in, high streets with shops they want to use, communities that support them and most of all a sense that they are able to shape their own lives.

Pulling all that off may seem like a tall order, especially when budgets are so strained.  To address any of these issues in isolation is a lost cause.  Local government remains the only place where this can be bought together strategically.

The media picture of this year’s conferences is of an increasing gap between left and right, but creating growth at a local level requires abandoning a false dichotomy between laissez faire and statist approaches.

Instead we need a dynamic relationship between the forces of the market and the ability of the local state to shape places and build civic capacity.

Different councils will seek to manage this differently according to their politics and local priorities.  No-one would argue that local government is not politically tribal, but it is also, by necessity, deeply pragmatic.

Party conference, the most tribal of all political events, may not seem like the place to look for pragmatism, but it’s there nonetheless in the emphasis from all three parties on a local approach to growth.

For local government the task, as ever, is to turn the rhetoric into reality.