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Labour must embrace localism

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

1940s civil servants
How it used to be - civil servants sorting files. Source: Getty Images

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