The government’s flagship Green Deal initiative has had something of a kicking recently, with some rumours even suggesting that the scheme will be scrapped.
It’s difficult to understand why anyone would object to a mechanism that will enable people to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, under no compulsion, and at no cost either to themselves or the taxpayer, but that’s an unfortunate sign of the hysteria and misinformation that characterises much of the debate around energy and climate change policy.
The negative headlines are unlikely to help drive Green Deal uptake when the scheme undergoes what the Department of Energy and Climate Change are referring to as ‘a managed launch’ this October (the fact that they need to clarify when a policy launch is to be ‘managed’ perhaps explains a lot about previous launches).
If this leads to the scheme failing altogether, it would be a great shame, because there is much to commend it. The Green Deal is a simple mechanism that enables households to install energy efficiency measures at no upfront costs. Repayments are attached to the electricity bill of the particular property, rather than the individual, so there is no danger of remaining liable for ongoing payments if the original Green Deal customer moves house. The scheme’s golden rule states that any home where the projected lifetime energy bill savings from the cost of the measures are no less than the installation costs is eligible.
With sufficient uptake, the Green Deal has the potential to deliver significant positive social and environmental outcomes. Over a third of Britain’s carbon emissions come from domestic energy use. It has been estimated that roughly one pound in every four spent on fuel bills is wasted because of poor energy efficiency. In London, 55 per cent of households in fuel poverty live in homes classed as Band E or below for energy efficiency, meaning that it is unnecessarily expensive for them to maintain adequate warmth.
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Despite the usual tactics from the Tories trying to inflate expectations for Labour’s performance in the local elections, even they were surprised by the force of our victories across the country on 3 May. We now have 824 new councillors in our ranks – people who will be passionate champions of Labour values in their communities and campaigning organisers who don’t just advocate for change, they will actually get things done for their residents. There are 33 new councils with Labour as the majority party – which means hundreds of thousands more people will now benefit from being represented by Labour.
Local gains across the country paint a wider picture of Labour’s growing strength nationally, but they are also the sum of many different local stories of success. A few examples show the diversity of experience. In Southampton Labour fought a positive campaign pledging value for money and better jobs locally, and beat a ruthless Tory administration. In Liverpool the new Mayor Joe Anderson has pledged major regeneration of the city and 5,000 new high quality and affordable homes. Labour’s ‘Team Swansea’ approach to the city chimed with voters as they committed to bring more opportunity to the city, create more of a ‘can-do’ culture and a collaborative partnership approach with business, voluntary community groups and public bodies to the benefit of local people.
In my own area of Dudley, we fought a highly devolved, ward-specific campaign which ensured that all of our candidates focused on issues of direct local relevance to residents. The margin of our victory, with 12 new councillors and overall control of the council demonstrates that local action will inspire and motivate people. In an age of increasing political apathy and outright alienation from perceived distant political elites, dynamic local activists have great potential to show people that our values can make a direct difference to their lives for the better.
Labour locally is under no illusion about the serious challenges we face. We have a Tory-led Government that is intent on destroying the fabric of our communities. The 28% cuts to council budgets (compare this with only 8% across Whitehall departments) were disproportionately spread to hit poorer areas the hardest. They were frontloaded to ensure maximum pain upfront, rather than allowing greater scope to plan for reductions over the four year spending cycle. Jobs have been lost and many services have faced reductions or cuts. We hear stories in the media on an almost daily basis about the social care system creaking under the weight of under-funding, increasing demand and national political inertia. The human cost of global financial elite misbehaviour and toxic Tory ideological misrule is showing. Our councillors are on the frontline dealing with the effects of this.
So, we allow ourselves credit for our election successes and then we move on to the real work of delivering for our communities. One of the best features of local democracy is the short election cycles which mean local campaigners are out on the doorstep year-round talking to voters and understanding their concerns. Our minds are already focused on the next electoral challenge for Labour local government: the county elections in May 2013. In the meantime we will be continuing to show that even in these difficult financial times, under a Government that is more concerned with protecting the jobs of its ministers than normal people, Labour has the ideas and energy to meet local peoples’ concerns and change their lives for the better.
Cutting carbon, delivering local green technology-based economic growth, creating jobs and regeneration, joining-up public services’ budgets and objectives, forging new partnerships. These are all desirable and all decent, clear objectives for the environment portfolio.
But to achieve them all, requires serious partnership working and the progressive, flexible and placeshaping route that local government must, I believe, follow. We need to make Localism work for us, face up to slashed funding, and tackle many wide-ranging challenges in our communities, of which economic growth and climate change are but two. As we digest The Committee on Climate Change’s new report out today, the role of local authorities in cutting carbon emissions is vital.
The reference in the title to ‘I want it all’ came from a recent speech to an Association for Public Service Excellence Conference – ‘Energy Efficiency vs Renewables’ – and developing a political vision for this. I unusually quoted a Queen song (not my taste in music either): “I guess my initial response to the question of energy efficiencies versus renewables would be, in the words of Freddie Mercury, I want it all, and I want it now.”
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Ed Miliband was right in his Progress speech to draw attention to the low turnout in the recent local government elections and the increasing public disconnection with politicians, the political parties and much of the political system. He was also right to call on The Labour Party to reconnect through adopting stronger links with local communities. One of his advisors was quoted in The Observer as saying that politicians have to address issues like “dog shit” on pavements. This is correct. However, the new community politics have to be about more than keeping the pavements free of canine excrement – important as this is.
Any renaissance in popular engagement with politics will have to be addressed in a number of levels. Macro international and national economic policies matter as much as those based on the local neighbourhood or street. Public service reform and the quality of the NHS, education, policing and transport must be addressed perhaps even more than street cleaning. Progressive taxation, welfare reform and redistribution of wealth, income and power are essential for any progressive political revival. The economy, employment and opportunity are important “stupid”.
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I suspect that 3 May 2012 will still be talked about in Birmingham Labour circles long after many of us have left the stage. We needed just four seats to end nearly a decade of Tory/Lib Dem rule at the Council House. By the end of the night we had bagged twenty. Wards once thought to be Tory or Lib Dem strongholds are now represented by Labour Councillors. Even the true blue bastion of Sutton Coldfield has fallen with Labour scoring a historic victory in the Vesey ward.
No one would deny that the national scene played an important part in Labour’s victory last week. On the doorsteps the anger of Birmingham voters at the unfairness and incompetence of the Government was palpable. As a city blighted by scandalously high levels of youth unemployment and struggling with the painful consequences of a double-dip recession, Birmingham knows all too well that we are not “all in this together”.
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Disastrously low turnouts in last week’s local elections reinforce the sense of local democracy being in a dire state. Dissatisfaction with national politics is on the rise and calls for stronger regional voices grow ever louder, but local politics is clearly not filling this vacuum.
In Manchester, Bristol and Nottingham for instance, even the elected mayor referendums could not entice voters to the ballot box, with turnout hovering around the 24% mark. While a jaded and despondent electorate are unwilling to hold local politicians to account, increasingly we also cannot rely on opposition politicians or local press to fulfil this role. A number of local council results in the north have wiped out any semblance of effective opposition. Knowsley council is now effectively under a one party state with Labour gaining four seats from the Lib Dems to have an astonishing 63 out of 63 councillors. Rotherham, Tameside, Manchester, Halton and South Tyneside are not far behind. Added to this, is the rapid decline of local newspapers which have up to now played a key role in holding councils to account. Many local papers, which had large readerships and influence in the areas they served several years ago, have either disappeared or seen their circulation figures dwindle.
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post-2010 election doldrums. Despite the fact that the Conservatives still control 51% of councils in England compared to Labour’s 29%, expectations are high in communities across the UK that Labour will provide an alternative to the austerity programme being pursued with such indecent haste by the Coalition government.
The results of the Coalition’s front-loaded, massive attack on councils and their employees are clear for all to see. Libraries closed, adult social care cut and harder to get, dangerous pot holes everywhere, nursery provision restricted, over 200,000 council jobs lost and local government workers’ pay cut by over 13% as a result of a three-year pay freeze. So, if Labour wants to build on its recent successes and win back more of its natural local government heartland in forthcoming local elections, it needs to do some serious thinking.
It’s gonna be tough. The worst of the cuts are yet to bite and the Coalition has more than half of its electoral term to complete. Labour has to demonstrate that it can rise to the challenge of delivering more with much less in the short term , while developing longer-term economic and social policies which recognise the critical role played by local government and its workforce. Councils are key to economic sustainability, the provision of stable local employment and the sense of belonging which results from high quality services which all groups within society can rely on and therefore ‘buy in’ to.
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Last week I did a news interview about the significance of the local elections in Southampton. The reporter asked me what percentage of the result is influenced by local factors. It’s a great question and it got me thinking. Some voters will make up their minds on entirely local factors, such as the quality of key services, or the local candidate. But watching the news coverage as the results came in, you would think its all about Westminster. The Labour Shadow Cabinet members on the telly were saying “this swing to Labour is a verdict on the Tory led government’s failed economic policies”. That is only part of the picture though, for some voters the elections were a verdict on the failure of their council to fix the pot holes, or in support of a local candidates local pledges.
Opposition parties can be in danger of mistaking government unpopularity for a popular endorsement of their own party. Locally though, the public have given Labour a mandate in many areas of the country, which brings with it a huge responsibility to deliver. In Birmingham, Southampton, Cardiff, Dudley, Harlow and Glasgow, new administrations must show they can govern effectively when times are tough. There are three key tests of this. The first is to keep taxes and charges down – Councils shouldn’t ask people to pay more at a time when they have less. The second is to stimulate local economies – jobs and economic recovery should be the top priority in every town and city because it is the key to everything else, including funding good services. Third, councils must provide the best possible services by using resources efficiently, by partnering well, by connecting up local services and levering in additional resources.
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Tomorrow sees a Westminster Hall debate on the North East economy. I am looking forward to hearing the government try to justify its assault one of our most important regional economies.
The government’s austerity drive is already impacting hardest on areas like the North East, which has the highest unemployment rate of the English regions (10.8%) and which received higher than average cuts to local government grant. And research published this weekend by the ippr North’s ‘Northern Economic Futures Commission’ shows the UK economy would be £40bn better off if the government recognized the potential for growth in the north.
Yet despite this, the government has dismantled key regional economic drivers and is implementing economic policies that are risking the recovery in our regions, as well as hitting hard working people at a time when the cost of living is rising sharply.
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The swift development of the Co-operative Council movement has taken even its originators by surprise. It now counts 17 councils in its number with a growing body of thinking and real live examples of the approach in action. When people feel moved to pose for pictures on sweeping municipal staircases, its time to take notice! Could it be that a genuinely new local government model is with us? The Co-op Council idea has instant appeal; people instinctively connect with it. It has grown out of local government itself and is not reliant on massive central government machinery for its fulfillment. It gives a positive role to public servants and an opportunity for planned participation and empowerment, which is a great antidote for laissez-faire ‘big society’ voluntarism.
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