With national debt rising to record levels and no sign of a long-term economic plan from the Conservative government, we already know that any potential future Labour government is going to be constrained financially for the start of its first term.
That is something that we in local government have sadly had to become experts in. After 13 years of austerity that has decimated council budgets and led to cuts across the country, doing more with less has become a necessity.
But while some prospective policies will require extra cash, making fundamental change depends on spreading power, just as much as spending money. As our society ages and as complex challenges like inequality define the pressures on our system, we need to find different ways of working with people to support them to succeed.
That’s where community power comes in. In a world where trust in institutions is low, politicians can’t stick with the status quo of forcing change on people without their input. We need to make decisions with the people we represent, not just on their behalf. By engaging honestly and genuinely with our residents, listening to their concerns and co-designing policies alongside them, councils are bringing about real change, often in the toughest circumstances and without fanfare.
The best of this work is focused not on short-term fixes or crisis management, but on deep, long-term early intervention and prevention work. This is what we need to break the cycles that are leaving our public services buckling and our populations in crisis. It was a desire to spotlight this ground-breaking work and embed the lessons more widely that drew me and six other Labour council leaders to work together on a new paper, alongside the New Local think tank, Power to Change, Local Trust and the Co-operative Party. A Labour Vision for Community Power: Participation, Prevention and Devolution is filled with examples of local government taking a new route when it comes to working with residents and tackling the challenges they face.
In Manchester, they have developed Early Help Hubs that provide direct support to families who need it most, leading to reduced demand to other core services. The number of children in care, for example, has fallen by 2 per cent while nationally it has risen by 35 per cent. In West Yorkshire, Mayor Tracy Brabin is engaging with underrepresented groups to take a public health approach to policing and crime, and has invested in hundreds of charitable and voluntary groups. In South Tyneside, more than 200 organisations have joined a council-led commitment to spend, recruit from, and support the local area, residents and businesses.
Here in Islington, we’ve fundamentally changed the way we work to try to address some of our area’s inequalities. Because despite the wealth of our borough, a third of children grow up in poverty. We’ve placed a greater emphasis on the impact on the community when deciding where we spend our money. This means more emphasis on outcomes like local good job creation, and equality and inclusion, as well as climate impact.
To further expand this work, we’ve created the Islington Anchor Institutions’ Network, working with local health trusts, universities, colleges, the business improvement district, a major housing association and large businesses, such as Arsenal Football Club. We’ve also used planning agreements to require developers to make available a proportion of floorspace in new office sites for a peppercorn rent, allowing us to create new, affordable workspaces for local, diverse entrepreneurs. The programme has now delivered over £2.2m of social value return in its first four years of operations, factoring for gains such as local apprenticeships, local employment opportunities, better working conditions for workers and better environmental impact.
Similar work is taking place across the country, proving that by genuinely listening to local people and by taking imaginative and sometimes radical approaches to building economic inclusivity, we can produce better results.
The lessons for a Labour government are potentially agenda-setting for a party determined to reintroduce meaning to the phrase “take back control”. It means real place-building powers for local government, combined with rights for communities to influence the spaces and services they rely on, and which make a difference to their lives.
The UK is one of the most centralised countries in the world, with the vast majority of power emanating from Westminster. The current model is clearly not working, which is why it is vital that devolution is at the heart of the Labour Party’s vision for the country, across to regions, councils and right down to neighbourhoods directly. After all, a civil servant in Whitehall can’t be the best person to decide what is best for local people in Archway, Ashton-under-Lyne or Aberdeen.
That’s why we need to change the way our politics is wired, genuinely listen to the people we represent, and make change with them, to tackle inequality and create the fairer society the Labour Party was formed to strive for.
A Labour Vision for Community Power was written by Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, along with six other Labour council leaders: Cllr Bev Craig, Cllr Tracey Dixon, Cllr Georgia Gould, Cllr Denise Jeffrey, Cllr Peter Mason and Cllr Kieron Williams. It was supported by New Local, Power to Change, Local Trust and the Co-operative Party.