Councils up and down the land are facing their greatest financial crisis for generations. The coalition cuts are brutal and local communities and services are suffering enormously as a consequence. The poorest areas are being hit the hardest and the most vulnerable are suffering the most - such is Tory-led Britain.
As in any storm, councils can stay still and be swept away or get stuck in and survive. Those who innovate will go from strength to strength, while those who counsel despair will sink into a slough of despondency and take their communities with them.
And Labour councils are finding new ways to express and act on their values: fairness, mutual support and social justice. A new report – One Nation Localism – shows exactly how. Innovating and taking action where they can, they are helping people in real ways despite these tough times. In a sense, this provides hope that an Ed Miliband-led "one nation" government will be able to pursue social justice even though the economic and fiscal climate left behind by a failed Tory and Liberal Democrat administration will be ferocious. It also shows that social justice relies on local innovation and action.
Local government funding is already being cut by a third and austerity is set to continue until at least 2018. In the pervading doom and gloom, it feels hard to be optimistic – where will the good news come from? And how can Labour present an alternative approach that shows you can deliver on your values even when money is tight?
There is no greater challenge than creating jobs and opportunity, as government inaction leaves an enormous vacuum – which Labour councils are filling. Just take Newham council’s new workplace scheme which has helped 5,000 people into work last year- many of them long-term unemployed. After the government disbanded Labour’s Future Jobs Fund, Nottingham council established their own to support young people in the city into employment. In areas as far and wide as Knowsley, Darlington and Plymouth the councils are working with local businesses to create apprenticeships and work opportunities to match out-of-work residents to.
The housing crisis continues but Labour councils are doing all they can to alleviate it in the short term and overcome it in the long term. Islington and Manchester are pioneering new models of investment in conjunction with council pension funds, to boost the supply of new affordable homes. Many more people are being forced to rent given the affordable homes crisis – and councils like Blackpool, Oxford and Newham are developing approaches to licensing to tackle rogue landlords and increase quality.
The need to overcome inequality and tackle poverty is of course at the heart of Labour councils,who see this as their core purpose. Up and down the country, in Liverpool, Newcastle, Blackpool, Sheffield , Leicester and Islington, Labour councils have set up Fairness Commissions to identify the challenges in their area and provide a framework to guide their decisions so they maximise their impact on narrowing inequality gaps. In Islington, for example, this has led to the council becoming a living wage employer and reducing its internal pay differential. In Liverpool a new approach to procurement looks to employ firms which can demonstrate clear benefits to local jobs and skills.
Twenty one Labour-led authorities have committed to a Co-operative Council approach, developing new ways of running public services to shift power and control out of town halls and into the hands of citizens. In Oldham, this means the council is finding new ways to work on the side of residents and seeking to remove barriers for them – whether by devolving significant power and funding to six districts within the borough with more direct community oversight or through a new Energy Co-operative that enables households to save up to £150 a year on their energy bills.
Taken separately, these initiatives show that given determination, councils can work to meet the needs of their residents against the odds – even though the overall national context still takes an enormous toll on people’s lives. Taken together, they chart a new agenda for Labour which recognises that even in a tight financial environment it is possible to take decisions in a fairer way. By adapting innovation to local circumstance, the one nation vision of a society bound together can be achieved without it becoming a ‘one size fits all’. In fact, is clear that greater social justice relies on different responses in different communities. Through localism, Labour’s values have become a practical reality.
One set of values, one nation, but many approaches – this is the mantra of a Labour localism. Hope is scarce resource in Tory-led Britain, but Labour in local government is digging its heals in to at least provide people with some hope despite the gloom.