Labour must embrace localism

Central government is no longer trusted or effective. That creates huge opportunities for the Opposi

In politics, it seems we’re all localists now. But that has not stopped a growing backlash against the idea of decentralising power in England.

Last week a survey of civil servants found that nearly a third thought localism was flawed and only 10% were fully in favour. The Committee on Climate Change recently called for new national duties to be placed on councils to produce low carbon strategies. Even TV chef Jamie Oliver is getting in on the act, demanding national standards for school dinners in Michael Gove’s academies.

Should Labour join in? On the face of it, this sounds like good politics. There are real reasons to criticise the coalition – for instance, the clear evidence that council cuts have hit poorest areas worst and the limited amount of new power for local government. The obvious thing for an opposition party to do is to try and discredit localism as nothing more than cover for cuts.

Obvious, but wrong. Instead of trying to knock localism down, Labour should outflank the coalition by doing it better. The party cannot return to the high centralism of the Blair/Brown years, when it turned out the man in Whitehall really didn’t know best when it came to NHS IT, teenage pregnancy and public satisfaction with state services. If the past 15 years proved anything, it is that central control cannot deliver an end to inequality.

Labour needs a new philosophy of governing, and localism fits the bill. It can address a number of the problems that any government will face after the next election. The English are starting to demand a greater say in the way they are governed against the backdrop of the Scottish independence debate. Devolving more power to cities and shires is part of any credible response.

Localism can drive growth – mounting evidence shows that greater financial independence for cities can increase GDP. It can also help tackle austerity. Studies suggest that £20bn could be saved over 10 years by giving councils more power to reorganise something as simple as all the public sector property in an area. Moreover, at a time when politics is facing a generalised crisis of trust, over 60% of us say we trust our councils.

A progressive approach to localism needs to do three things: break down the power of Whitehall departments, encourage councils to cluster into bigger units and introducing compulsory voting.

A lack of joined up thinking in Whitehall creates artificial walls between business and transport, welfare and justice. We need to break down the barriers, and that means breaking the power of the great departments of state.

Labour should promise to introduce a devolution bill that would make Whitehall significantly smaller by handing control of large elements of services such as criminal justice, skills and business policy, and benefits administration to local authorities. The government should publish a whole-of-government strategy for the coming parliament, with a handful of big, clear goals for local authorities and other local services, policed through a new department of the prime minister and cabinet.

Councils need to change too. They are already taking a 28% cut in their central government grants and there is almost certainly more to come whoever wins the next election. If they are going to maintain their services and get to the right scale to drive growth, local authorities need to cluster together across cities and shires to share services and pool their investment power to drive growth.

Some councils already clubbing together into combined authorities – a bit like the Greater London Authority without the mayor’s powers – that currently cover Greater Manchester and may soon cover West Yorkshire as well.  Labour should encourage more of this with carrots and sticks: new powers for those who voluntarily cluster, the threat of a top down restructuring for those who drag their feet. This should be a precursor to the eventual election of Boris-style ‘metro-mayors’ for all the country’s major conurbations.

There exists an opportunity to create a new era of prosperous English city states that can channel the best of Chamberlain and Morrison, but to justify devolution we need to make sure that local politicians are accountable to their electorates for the exercise of their new powers. Low turnouts – the average is in the early 30s - have for too long been an excuse for centralism. But just because the public isn’t interested in voting, doesn’t mean voting isn’t in the public interest. That is why we should consider introducing compulsory voting for local elections.

David Blunkett once gave a speech which complained that ministers had ‘responsibility without power’. His government tried to resolve this problem by taking more power into the centre. This time round, if the party wants to win and, more importantly, to govern well, it needs to take the other path: Labour needs its own localism.

Simon Parker is Director of the New Local Government Network

How it used to be - civil servants sorting files. Source: Getty Images

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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