The Angel of The North is seen prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester City at St James' Park on January 12, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour needs to go much further to give real meaning to devolution

A council tax revaluation, local proportional representation and participatory budgets should all be on the table.

Last week was all about devolution. Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas led the charge with a pair of visionary but detail-light speeches about the ways a Labour government will start to hand power down to councils and communities. Even this rhetorical shift towards localism is remarkable following the centralised control-freakery of the New Labour years. The promise is clear – better designed, more efficient services and much deeper engagement with citizens.

But while it may be a little early for hard and fast policy, Labour does need to start working through the practical issues it will face very quickly. Meaningful devolution cannot be achieved through a few tweaks here and there. If Miliband and Cruddas are serious, they will have to commit themselves to one of the largest programmes of institutional change that England has ever seen.

Real devolution will mean tackling a trifecta of challenges – making council finances sustainable, reforming the civil service and addressing the local accountability deficit. Not only are these problems big, difficult and often considered too dull for leaflets and PPBs, they are also the sort of problem that need addressing in the first six months of a new administration before ministers lose their reformist momentum and fall back. overwhelmed into the arms of the mandarins.

Local government finance is the trickiest of the three. The system as it stands is a mess. Council tax is set against property values from 1992, and so completely fails to reflect the massive relative increase in southern house values. It has effectively been capped by the coalition for the past three years, with the effect that its claim to be in any sense a local tax is slowly dying. Business rates have not risen in real terms since 1992 and is also effectively treated as a national tax.

With a double whammy of government cuts and rising demand meaning councils face a £16.5bn spending gap by 2020, Miliband will need to find a way to pass more revenue-raising power down to the local level. This means, at the very least, a council tax revaluation and new bands so the very wealthiest pay more. More likely, a whole new system for local taxation will be required.

Civil service reform is probably more achievable – it is, after all, within the direct grasp of the prime minister, who has only to appoint a reformist Cabinet Secretary and demand change. If Miliband is serious about pooling money from different services into a single 3-5 year pot and devolving this to local level, he will need to manage the budget process in a very different way.

Instead of handing separate budgets to, say, the Department of Health and the Department for Communities, and then hoping they will cobble it back together into a single budget, he will have to bypass departments entirely and pass pooled funding to local government. This will require new lines of accountability to ensure that councils are spending the money well. It may also require the new prime minister to revisit Blair-era plans for a new US-style Office of Management and Budget to take on the public spending aspects of the Treasury’s work.

Finally, Miliband must confront the very real challenges facing local democracy. It is striking that neither he nor Cruddas seem overly worried about the role of voting in a new devolved settlement. In their vision, low turnouts are managed by lots of co-production and involvement of citizens in managing and designing the services they receive.

This will not be enough. With council election turnout flatlining in the low 30s, ministers need to consider how to get the public involved in big choices about the future of their places. Radical ideas such as local proportional representation or compulsory voting should be on the table, as should mandatory use of local participatory budgets combined with jury service-style selection of participants.

Localism represents a gigantic, but necessary, reform agenda. Are Miliband and Cruddas really up for it? We must hope so, because Labour has been trying to do piecemeal, pragmatic reform of local government for a very long time, and it has not delivered. England’s governance is groaning under the weight of decades of accumulated pragmatism. If we are going to make a reality of a more devolved nation, we need a government that will make a fresh start.

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad