Don't forget councils' less glamorous responsibilities. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.