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