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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.