Jon Cruddas MP heads Labour's policy review. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How councils are already delivering the Cruddas agenda

If you want to know what a Miliband government might look like, you should start by paying a visit to your local town hall.

What does it mean to be a socialist in a shrinking state? The Labour Party comes a step closer to an answer today as Ed Miliband launches IPPR's Condition of Britain report, but the key themes of a new approach are already clear. In fact, they are already being implemented up and down the country by local authorities. If you want to know what a Miliband government might look like, you should start by paying a visit to your local town hall.

Councils have a tendency to lead the pack when it comes to government innovation. They invented public education and sanitation in the 19th century, the national health service in the 20th and now they are on the cusp of pioneering a new approach to government and welfare. This rapidly accelerated process of change is being driven by gigantic budget cuts - many councils will halve in size over the course of the current decade against a backdrop of rising demand for their services, especially social care.

So far, most councils have focused on ruthless pruning of staff and some restriction of services. But over the next few years many will launch into a radical programme of change that will confound both small state conservatives and big state leftists by showing that we can still have active and effective government with much less money. 

Neighbourhoods will be asked to help decide how to spend declining budgets for street cleaning, leisure and parks. Some leisure centres may be closed altogether and local people given subsidised gym memberships to their local Virgin Active. Face-to-face customer contact will disappear in some areas to be replaced with websites and carefully trained neighbours and shop workers.

The themes underpinning this change are precisely those that might inform a new settlement of the kind envisaged by Jon Cruddas. Councils are heavily shifting their services towards prevention rather than cure. Services are being reformed to keep old people living independently in their own homes rather than letting them languish in expensive and depressing care homes and hospitals. In some areas, councils will pay families and carers to build social support networks around young people with learning disabilities, reducing their lifetime cost to the public sector.

Councils are taking a much more active role in shaping the local economy to ensure that it creates fewer problems for the state to solve. This is partly about working together across conurbations such as Greater Manchester to identify growth industries and encourage the creation of middle income jobs. But it is also about interventions to give consumers better choices, ranging from bulk purchasing of energy and insurance to the creation of white good stores with cheap consumer credit and alternative payday lenders.

The public is also being asked to contribute more of its time to shaping and supporting public goods. In some areas they will be given control of parks and asked to maintain them. In others, they are already being asked to cook meals for neighbours and grit their own streets in the winter. The best metaphor I can find for this new model of government is the common; the idea that a place is a vital resource that business, households and government must all contribute to maintaining. 

There is no doubt that what is emerging in town halls is embryonic, messy and imperfect. That is to be expected. Councils are being forced into a new paradigm of government at breakneck pace. They are held back by very deep budget cuts, which raise very serious questions about whether some councils can survive in their current reform. No amount of reform will allow us to run social care on thin air. 

A Labour government in 2015 can fuel the local revolution by accepting recommendations from its policy commissions to devolve housing benefit, reduce limits of council borrowing, and by devolving big pooled budgets to fuel economic growth and closer working with the health service. We live in a time when the central progressive dilemma is how to decouple social progress from the act of spending public money. In local government we can see the future. In a few years, we will start to understand whether or not it works.

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496