Manchester Town Hall: Labour has come up with a New Deal for England, involving devolving powers. Photo: Getty
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Labour’s New Deal for England will end a century of centralisation

The shadow communities secretary and head of Labour's policy review explain why Labour will adopt a radically different approach to delivering public services, moving away from top-down central control.

Politics is at a turning point. Too many decisions are top-down and state-driven, and too much is about structures rather than individuals. Our current way of doing things is based on centralisation and a culture built on expectation of, rather than obligation to, others, both of which have left us, for example, with insufficient and unaffordable childcare, too many young people out of work, and a care system for older people that is creaking under the strain. 

We know there are lots of people with ideas and determination to change things, but feel powerless to act. Communities with huge energy and potential. And those at the frontline know better than anyone back in Whitehall how, through local reform and innovation, that they could deliver better services.

So how should a future Labour government respond? Labour is clear that we cannot simply spend more money to deal with the growing pressure on services, but we also know that the Tory approach of cutting back services and leaving communities to sink or swim is failing.  And so, at a time when there is less money around, a Labour government will have to adopt a radically different approach to delivering public services. Instead of the old model of top-down central control, we will have devolve power to communities and users to deliver the public services they want. 

Today, the Local Government Innovation Taskforce has published its conclusions on how a Labour government could achieve this. Their proposals for reform are based on three principles: pushing power down; collaboration so that services are joined up around the needs of people and place; and prevention to stop costly problems before they arise. 

The central recommendation, which we strongly endorse, is that a Labour government should agree a New English Deal with councils to devolve powers and resources down to communities. In return, local government will enter into new public service contracts with their communities to deliver five outcomes:

·         the care needed to live independently;

·         opportunities for young people to get a decent job;

·         community safety and reductions in crime;

·         help for excluded families;

·         early-years support for every child in the community.

To do this a Labour is committed to the principle of multi-year funding settlements for local services to give councils the flexibility to redesign services around the needs of local people and the ability to keep savings gained through reforms locally. And that's not all. Further areas for devolution proposed by the Taskforce that could also form part of the deal include:

·         Greater powers locally to bring together health and social care around the ‘whole person’ through a collective commissioning plan and a pooled budget based on ‘year of care funding’ for people with long term conditions.

·         Local control over the vocational skills budget for 19 to 24 year olds so that areas can decide what further education colleges should provide. 

·         A new local service for under 21 year olds to help young people get the skills and help they need to get a decent job. This would bringing together Jobcentre Plus and local authority support for young people under one roof.

·         Stronger powers for local authorities to appoint local police commissioners, set priorities for neighbourhood policing and improve value for money and performance; and       

·         Powers to broker childcare support for parents and join-up early years services in Sure Start Centres, matched by stronger local accountability of all schools through the appointment of Directors of Schools Standards. 

Hand in hand with this radical new approach will be a commitment to local accountability and scrutiny, with councils setting up strong councillor-led Local Public Accounts Committees. As Whitehall’s budget and local budgets are increasingly pooled to provide local services, it is at the local level that scrutiny of that expenditure and its effectiveness should take place. A single body with the power to assess all public services in an area will not only drive better value for taxpayers but create much stronger and more visible accountability for decisions.

This is one important part of Labour's New Deal for England, but our centralised state is also holding back growth. It is madness that plans for transport investment, for example, have to make the long, slow journey all the way to Whitehall to get the go ahead instead of being decided, and implemented, locally. That is why last week Andrew Adonis’ report on devolving power over economic development and infrastructure to councils and to groups of councils that come together, working closely with local business leaders, is also so significant.

A Labour government will transfer £30bn of spending from Whitehall to the Town Hall over the lifetime of the next Parliament and allow groups of councils that form combined authorities to retain 100% of business rates income. This is an offer not just to our great cities, which were once the silicon valleys of the industrial revolution and are now home to new industries, but also to our counties. After all, where is the centre of global innovation in motorsport engineering?  Oxfordshire. Where can you find the home of Europe's foremost biotechnology cluster? Greater Cambridge.

What this is all about is letting go so that the talent and vision you can find in every community can flourish. Last weekend, we saw what this could achieve as Leeds, Harrogate and Sheffield - along with the glory of the Yorkshire Dales - played host to the Tour de France. That's what you get when you devolve power. Just imagine what more could be done if we set free all this local creativity, energy and passion.

As Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, said: "We're the level of government closest to the majority of the world's people. While nations talk, but too often drag their heels, cities act."

That's the case for the New Deal for England that Labour will be offering next May.

You can read the full report here.

Hilary Benn is Labour MP for Leeds Central and shadow communities secretary; Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham and he heads Labour's policy review

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder