Labour will give people the power to shape their communities

Faced with austerity and a crisis of public confidence, we need to get money out of Whitehall and down to communities where it can be used to best effect.

The communities in which we all live and work are facing enormous social, economic and demographic changes. It’s going to be harder for councils to keep services going, let alone cope with rising demand for social care as the number of older people increases, because they are bearing the brunt of the coalition’s austerity. Councils are having their government funding nearly halved and the poorest areas have unfairly been hit the hardest.

What this means is that we have to change the way in which public money is spent on the things we all value and rely on. We need to get money out of Whitehall and down to communities where it can be used to best effect. And we need to devolve to councils and groups of councils (like the combined authorities and city regions) more powers over transport investment, planning, skills, and finding jobs for the long-term unemployed. This is one of the ways in which we can radically change the way in which England is run to make it a much less centralised country.

But perhaps most important of all, we need to do this to address the crisis of confidence, and alienation there is in our politics. The global economic crash came as a great shock, we have a cost of living crisis, and parents think about pensions, housing or the environment and wonder whether the future for their children will be better than the life they have enjoyed. Many people feel that too many decisions are taken too far away from them.

And that’s why the only way we are going to rebuild confidence in the power of people working together to create something better – the thing we call politics – is to give people the power to do precisely that for themselves.

For too long, we have fallen prey to consumerist politics – people demanding of government and then sitting back to wait for things to happen. The changes I want to see are based on the idea of contributory politics – it’s up to all of us to put something in because by taking responsibility we can take back power over our own lives.

And that’s what Labour’s One Nation idea is all about. Reform of the market to tackle the cost of living crisis and vested interests. Getting finance to encourage and support innovation and a longer term view. Pushing power down to communities so that people locally can build the homes they need, tackle the payday lenders, and generate renewable energy. England’s big cities are already leading the way on this and showing what can be done – a wonderful antidote to gloom and despair.

At the end of this month, Jon Cruddas and I are organising a Policy Review symposium that will bring together council leaders, MPs, members of the shadow cabinet, policy makers, academics, and those working in the third sector to discuss all this and more. 

At a time when money is tight, how exactly are we going to change the relationship between central and local government, social institutions and the market?  How do we reorganise our public services around people, households and places rather than administrative structures? And how do we tell the story of what this will make possible? These are the questions informing our policy making so that we can win the election in 2015 and provide the groundwork for a radical, reforming government.

Hilary Benn is shadow communities and local government secretary, and MP for Leeds Central 

Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Hilary Benn is shadow foreign secretary, and Labour MP for Leeds Central.

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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