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

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.