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Manifesto for the future of Local Government









The current general election is no doubt going to divide opinion on who should lead the country after 12th December. Voting will often be driven by deeply held beliefs rather than by refence to political manifestos. I find it rare to speak with anyone that has actually read any of the published manifestos, I guess relying on their beliefs and the media reporting to help them determine which way to jump.

So, I thought it might be helpful for those that work in local government to have a ready summary of some of the key elements of the manifestos from the three principal UK wide political parties, and how they differ in terms of the areas that local government officers might be interested in.

Manifesto in numbers

Before I get into stated policies, let’s look at some of the numbers. No, not financial numbers. There has been enough published in the media about those. I want to look at the numbers around the choice and use of certain key words. Call it ‘election bingo’ if you will.

Given the period of austerity since the 2008 crash one might have perhaps expected the word ‘austerity’ to crop up quite a few times in the manifestos. After all, the published investment programmes, and the eye-watering financial numbers being banded about are surely a response to austerity. Indeed, both Theresa May and Sajid Javid have told us that austerity is over.

As it turns out the word “austerity” isn’t mentioned by either the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats, but gets 10 namechecks by Labour. Read into that what you will.

If the word ‘austerity’ is not hitting the headlines, then what about the ‘deficit’, which has been a dominant theme of the past decade? Well this gets just one mention in the Conservative manifesto – and none at all the manifestos of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Finally, what about ‘Brexit’? No surprise that “Brexit” turns up on 61 occasions in the Conservative manifesto, outnumbering the equivalent totals for Labour (21) and the Liberal Democrats (49).

If Brexit dominates the theme of the Conservative manifesto then what, you might ask are the dominant themes of the other two manifestos. Well this seems to be areas such as environment, economy and climate emergency, the latter of which appears in the Conservative manifesto only once.

Manifesto pledges

Coming in at 64 pages – front and back covers included – the Conservative Party manifesto is about two-thirds of the length of the documents published by Labour (107 pages) and the Liberal Democrats (100 pages).

As a result, and also because of the style in which it is written, there is far less detail in it than in the other two. It uses case study type interviews, which to me makes it hard to distinguish from what is a manifesto pledge and what is an opinion of a party supporter or election candidate.

Local Government Funding

In its ‘grey book’ Labour has pledged to restore several areas of local government funding via other departments’ spending, including SureStart, youth services and public health. They say they will put local government on a sustainable financial footing with a boost to the Revenue Support Grant. They have estimated that this will raise in the region of £20bn for local government in 2023-2024.

The Liberal Democrats commit to a real increase in local government funding throughout the Parliament.

Labour will restore public sector pay to at least pre-financial crisis levels (in real terms), by delivering year-on-year above-inflation pay rises, starting with a 5% increase.

The Liberal Democrats say they will devolve further revenue-raising powers away from Westminster, to regions from Cornwall to North East England, and will legislate to empower groups of authorities to come together to establish devolved governance and ensure that any powers devolved are matched by the funding to deliver on the needs of local people. There is no detail on what this means exactly, so presumably it will be led from the regions by the regions.

Upgrading buildings

Labour say they will update libraries with Wi-Fi and computers, and reintroduce library standards so that government can assess and guide councils in delivering the best possible service. There will also be a £1 billion Cultural Capital Fund to transform libraries, museums and galleries across the country.

The Labour manifesto also includes a £150 billion Social Transformation Fund to replace, upgrade and expand schools, hospitals, care homes and council houses.

The Conservative manifesto says that “We have announced the largest cultural capital programme in a century, of £250 million. This will support local libraries and regional museums.” This is not actually a new pledge, as this was announced on 12th October this year.

School premises

Labour says that it will “end the fragmentation and marketisation of our school system” by bringing free schools and academies back under control of the people who know them best – parents, teachers and local communities.

This stops short of saying that they will be brought under the control of the Local Education Authority, so it is difficult to know what the policy actually might mean. Although it does go on to say that “responsibility for delivery of education and support for young people will sit with local authorities, they will manage admissions. and have responsibility for school places, including the power to open schools.”

The Liberal Democrats say they will give local authorities with responsibility for education the powers and resources to act as Strategic Education Authorities for their area, including responsibility for places planning, exclusions, administering admissions including in-year admissions, and SEND functions.

They will also create a level playing field by requiring MATs to undergo external inspection and allowing local authorities to open new Community Schools where needed. They oppose any future expansion of grammar schools and devolve all capital funding for new school spaces to local authorities.

In a very bold pledge, the Liberal Democrats say they will invest to clear the backlog of repairs to school and college buildings. There is no financial quantification of this this pledge. They do say they will invest £1 billion a year in Children’s Centres to support families and tackle inequalities in children’s health, development and life chances.

Housing

There is a quite a focus on housing in all three manifestos, with differences in approaches.

Labour will create a new Department for Housing, make Homes England a more accountable national housing agency and put councils in the driving seat. They will also set up a new English Sovereign Land Trust, with powers to buy land more cheaply for low-cost housing and developers will face new ‘use it or lose it’ taxes on stalled housing developments.

Labour says they will deliver a new social housebuilding programme of more than a million homes over a decade, with council housing at its heart. By the end of the Parliament they will be building at an annual rate of at least 150,000 council and social homes, with 100,000 of these built by councils for social rent in the biggest council housebuilding programme in more than a generation. There will be a new duty on councils to plan and build these homes in their area, and fund them to do so, with backing from national government.

The Liberal Democrats say that they will build at least 100,000 homes for social rent each year and ensure that total housebuilding increases to 300,000 each year.

The Conservatives say they will bring forward a Social Housing White Paper which will set out further measures to empower tenants and support the continued supply of social homes. This will include measures to provide greater redress, better regulation and improve the quality of social housing. This is lacking any detail at the moment.

In terms of the right to buy, Labour have said they will scrap it altogether in England. The Conservatives are going to maintain the current system, and the Lib Dems have said they will leave the decision in the hands of local government.

Labour is going to review the case for reducing the amount of housing debt councils currently hold, and will give councils the powers and funding to buy back homes from private landlords.

Health & Safety

Labour have said that they will introduce a £1 billion Fire Safety Fund to fit sprinklers and other fire safety measures in all high rise council and housing association tower blocks, enforce the replacement of dangerous Grenfell-style cladding on all high-rise homes and buildings, while introducing mandatory building standards and guidance, inspected and enforced by fully trained Fire and Rescue Service fire safety officers.

The Conservatives say that they are already committed to implementing and legislating for all the recommendations of the Hackitt Review and the first phase of the independent inquiry, and will continue to work with industry, housing associations and individuals to ensure every home is safe and secure. They also commit to support high rise residential residents with the removal of unsafe cladding, and continue with their rigorous process of materials testing.

There is no mention of Grenfell, fire safety or building regulations in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

Roads

This area gets very little coverage. Surprising, considering that at a local level the condition of the roads s quite a hot topic.

The Conservatives say that they will continue with their Potholes fund of £500m per year from 2020/2021 to 2023/2024, although this is in their costing document rather than in the manifesto.

Labour will invest to make neglected local roads, pavements and cycleways safer for the everyday journeys of both drivers and vulnerable road users, although there is no certainty on what the financial quantification of this is.

The Liberal Democrats make no mention at all of tackling the roads backlog.

Outsourcing

Labour will end the current presumption in favour of outsourcing public services and introduce a presumption in favour of insourcing. They will also take back all PFI contracts over time – although do not say what period of time that will be.

Labour have also said that when services are procured from the private sector, companies will be assessed against best practice public service criteria, including provisions for collective bargaining, fair wage clauses, adherence to environmental standards, effective equalities policies, full tax compliance and application of pay ratios. They will act to bring services back in-house within the next Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats say they will “decentralise decision-making from Whitehall and Westminster, by inviting local areas to take control of the services that matter to them most.” There is no real meat on what this means.

They talk in terms of giving people “more power, with customers holding companies delivering services to account for their failures, and with communities able to take charge of aspects of their own local development – through, for example, establishing local banks and community energy cooperatives.”

The High Street

The Conservatives focus on regenerating towns through a Towns Fund which will go to an initial 100 towns to improve their local economy. They also talk about a fundamental review of the system. As a first step, they will further reduce business rates for retail businesses, as well as extending the discount to grassroots music venues, small cinemas and pubs.

A Labour government will review the option of a land value tax on commercial landlords as an alternative to business rates, with no detail on what this might mean. There is no mention of how this transfer in tax liability might be managed, and how they would avoid this tax burden still falling on occupants through rent increases. They would also develop a retail sector industrial strategy and list pubs as Assets of Community Value so community groups have the first chance to buy local pubs when they are under threat.

The Conservatives will establish a £150 million Community Ownership Fund to encourage local takeovers of civic organisations or community assets that are under threat – local football clubs, but also pubs or post offices.

Labour also say they will revive high streets by stopping bank branch closures, banning ATM charges and giving local government new powers to put empty shops to good use.

Summary

I hope you have found this summary interesting and time saving.

Of course if the next election delivers anything other than a majority for any single party then we can expect much negotiation on manifesto pledges. In that scenario, who knows what the first Queen's Speech will look like?!