Heseltine and the Ideology of the Coalition: Cllr Nick Forbes Leader of Newcastle

Subject: A New Progressive Localism

Dear Hilary,

Congratulations!  Welcome to the shadow Communities and Local Government brief.

As Labour’s leading Westminster voice for our sector, you have a great opportunity to help forge a new progressive vision for Labour in local government.

Working with our great Labour leaders, cabinets and councillors around the country, you can shape and promote a new vision for Labour local government and for localism; one that draws on the Party’s historic commitment to community, active government and democratic values.

Local Government is the one place in England that Labour is in power. Here we can demonstrate our values through the action we take, show we have fresh ideas for the future and let people know we are on their side.

Given the current Government’s financial onslaught on public services and local authorities in particular, Labour local government will be the first line of defence for our communities. You also have the opportunity to be the champion of local government itself, regardless of its political complexion, in the face of its denigration by this government.

Yet the progressive local government agenda has to be about more than a defence of public services and opposition to the Conservative led Coalition. It must also be the source of new ideas, a new sense of optimism, and a new vision for our society

We propose five key areas of focus:

1. A new role for local government – recognising that the core strength of local government lies in its democratic mandate. From this should spring policy commitments to enhance local democracy and strengthen local government’s influence over a wide range of locally delivered public services. Labour must expose this government’s attempts to undermine and fragment local government. Working with your colleagues across the shadow cabinet, we must dust down and revitalise “Total Place” and actively consider how this policy can be pursued under the current fiscal constraints.  More significantly we must develop a version of local government-led strategic leadership of place for implementation after the next general election.  There should also be a debate on the constitutional role of local government and how democratic local government can be defined alongside the devolved governments and the national government.  We have to celebrate local empowerment rather than fall into lazy debates about “post code lotteries” with local politicians accountable for their local actions.

2. Reclaiming the empowerment agenda – this new role for local government should be hand-in-hand with reclaiming the agendas of transparency, empowerment, and citizen engagement in the design and delivery of services. While much of the Government’s Big Society seeks to roll back the state and leave people to sink or swim, we must set out a new role for an active, co-operative local state, which flows from our traditional values of social democracy, mutuality and the devolution of power to the people. It can build on the initiatives being taken by the “Co-operative Councils” and other examples of Labour councils working with, building and empowering local communities. We must harness the potential within our communities, better build services around individuals and families, and give people more control over their lives.  Our objective must be about a new empowering rather than controlling role for the state.

3. Being outward looking and outcome focused - Labour local government has to adopt a constructive partnership with the voluntary and community sector, as well as to local businesses.  It must demonstrate its ability to secure excellent outcomes and value for money from public services. It must always strive to be the exemplar employer and expect the same of its suppliers and partners. It must engage with the public sector unions. It should not shy away from personalisation of public services nor, where it is appropriate, of new relations with service providers – be they academies, private companies, third sector organisations or other public sector partners.  The standard of the service for citizens is what matters.  You should encourage local authorities to take into account wider public value when determining who provides public services and how. It must be a sophisticated commissioner and procurer, as well as direct provider. It has to be ready to drive its public policy agenda through ethical procurement – putting some of Ed Miliband’s conference speech into practice.  It must never tolerate second best services. This will require challenging some traditional Labour orthodoxies and encouraging excellence from Labour local government.

4. Challenge Coalition unfairness – One area of Government policy that has to be challenged and opposed is the deep and disproportionate cuts to local government finance. It is clear that the cuts are unfairly impacting on the most deprived parts of the country and are likely to have an impact on those most in need within our communities. Moreover the reforms being proposed for business rates and council tax benefits must be challenged not so much from an ideological perspective but because of the severe consequences for many socially and economically disadvantaged areas of the country. A social democratic government should look again at the historic imbalance between central and local funding, but would need to retain some powers to redistribute resources between places to meet different needs.

Whilst not all of the Government’s agenda should be opposed – for example the thrust of its localism and its proposed power of general competence, it is essential that we should also hold this government’s feet to the fire on the real issues that are of the highest priority. Eric Pickles should not be able to distract the debate with noise around weekly bin collection, when there is an impending crisis in social care.

5. Renew Labour through local government – Local government has a critical role to play in Labour’s plans for the future of the country as well as our local communities. Here we can apply our values to our decision making and demonstrate to the public what it means to have Labour in power. We also need to support a new generation of local government leaders. So many great progressive politicians in the past have heralded from local government – we should support and encourage good political leadership at local level. And we should support the growing emphasis on community leadership, where our councillors are reconnecting our party with the people at the most local level. We should also celebrate innovation and service excellence.

Local government is facing major challenges, not least the devastating budget cuts.  To be in local government can feel very lonely and hard at present.  You will need to empathise with councillors and others across the country, but this should not lead you to pull your punches when challenging them or when developing new policies. We need change!  The agenda cannot be about going back to what was pre-2010 but finding, and enabling others to find, new solutions which meet the needs and aspirations of local communities. We have to find new approaches to enable Labour local government to lead the progressive transformation of the country.

You inherit an exciting agenda with so many issues that are or crucial importance to the lives of local people. We will be ready and willing to support you.

Good luck!


John Tizard and Anna Turley



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