Don't forget councils' less glamorous responsibilities. Photo: Getty
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Councils aren't just about growth; we must remember their less glamorous services

There isn’t much point in turning Manchester into an economic powerhouse if the city cannot afford to care for its elderly or deliver the leisure and culture services that help places thrive.

Local government’s roots lie in the need to manage and support the economies of the UK’s towns and cities. Joseph Chamberlain reimagined the role of local government in 19th century Birmingham by borrowing to buy-up the local water and gasworks and using the income to revamp his squalid city centre. Leeds city council built its town hall in the 1930s to provide jobs for struggling labourers.

Today’s launch of the Adonis review shows how completely the national political class has bought into this pre-war vision of councils not as bulky service providers, but as light touch stewards of prosperity. The question now is whether we are just going back to the future, or whether the Adonis vision can be made part of a much larger reinvention of local public services for the 21st century.

The proposals are not especially novel: the good Lord himself accepts that his thinking in grounded in the coalition’s Heseltine review but argues that he will go much further in delivering the former deputy prime minister’s vision with more money, greater retention of business rates and a much fuller offer to county councils. They are nonetheless a major step in the right direction, offering great cities like Leeds and Manchester a level of control over their economic destiny not seen for generations.

But councils are not just about growth. They also have responsibility for less glamorous services such as elderly care, child protection and bins. There isn’t much point in turning Manchester into an economic powerhouse if the city cannot afford to care for its elderly or deliver the leisure and culture services that help places thrive.

The answer is to draw a much closer link between economic performance and social progress. By fostering the right kind of growth, councils can get people into good jobs that keep them independent of the state, and by delivering better public services they can ensure a healthy and well-skilled workforce and create a place that attracts investment. That is why the real action for the future of Labour’s localism offer lies with the imminent report of the local government innovation taskforce. This will set out big recommendations for devolving and integrating budgets for mainstream public services such as health and skills.

Prising the Adonis £30bn out of departmental hands will be tough enough, but this is capital money destined for roads and building. The innovation taskforce will call for local authorities to be given more influence over jealously guarded service budgets in return for submitting to new accountability mechanisms.

We are seeing the emergence of a new kind of local government as the sector responds to the biggest cuts it has ever faced. Council efforts are targeted on the basis of strong data analysis, new layers of preventative services are being built up and growth is at the forefront of the whole debate. In accepting the Adonis proposals, Labour has gone halfway to supporting and endorsing the kind of 21st century progressivism exemplified by the best councils. Next week, it has the chance to finish the journey.

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network

 

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.