Manifestly local: A real commitment or a sleight of hand from the Conservatives?

Devolving power is a key theme of the Conservative Party manifesto, but will it be another case of giving with one hand and taking with the other?

Many of the big policy reveals in the Tories’ manifesto had already been revealed by the Chancellor in his budget speech last month, but we are given more concrete commitments here.

These include legislating to “deliver the historic deal for Greater Manchester” whereby powers over transport, infrastructure and £6b of health and social care spending will be devolved to a the combined authority, headed by an elected mayor. It will also involve three pilots that will allow Cambridgeshire, Greater Manchester and Cheshire East to retain 100% of the growth in business rates, in order to encourage growth-boosting measures.

Clearly elected mayors are the devo-structure of choice, although the manifesto claims that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. It makes plain the Tories’ intention to “devolve far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors” as well as handing further powers to Mayor of London. Does this mean that local areas are unlikely to see any powers coming their way without a mayor?

The biggest stir was reserved for the biggest of the policy reveals, however, which involved housing.

By extending Right to Buy so that housing association tenants can also buy their homes at a discount, the Conservatives claim to be going further and faster as the party of home ownership. This echoes their commitments to support for first time buyers.

The policy has come under fire from various quarters, including business. It would not help the national shortage of houses, would hit housing associations ability to borrow in the future, and seems to ignore the fact that housing associations are not publicly owned organisations, they are independent charities, so the move would be open to challenge. It would certainly set an interesting precedent if a Conservative government started forcing private businesses to sell their property.

Perhaps most significantly for local authorities, however, is the plan to fund the discounts in Right to Buy II by forcing councils to sell their most valuable properties when they become vacant. The Conservatives predict this will raise £4.5bn from already cash-strapped authorities, who are struggling to build to replace stock from Right to Buy I. Just as with Right to Buy I, councils will not be able to keep all the proceeds from the sales.

The Tories plan to funnel the proceeds into a £1bn “Brownfield fund”, to help kick-start development on brownfield sites, and to ensure “one-for-one” replacement of homes sold. The burden of proof will be on them to show how it will be different this time around, however,

In general there are some very interesting and significant commitments to devolution within the regions, which certainly indicate the direction of travel. But local government would be forgiven that they are not entirely supported in delivering for their local communities in the ways that they might like.

Other policy commitments that will be of interest to local government include:

  • New regional adoption agencies working across local authority.
  • Funding of local authority public budgets.
  • Improving the quality of community sports facilities and investing in artificial football pitches in 30 cities.
  • Working with local authorities and others to support victims of sexual violence and protect FGM, forced marriage units, refuges and rape crisis centres.
  • Encouraging voluntary integration of services and administration between and within councils – for example, with the Troubled Families Programme and the Better Care Fund – to promote savings and improve local services.
  • Giving councils at least a 10 per cent stake in public sector land sales in their area.
  • A review of how to further reduce ring-fencing and remove Whitehall burdens to give councils more flexibility to support local services.
  • Supporting Business Improvement Districts and other forms of business-led collaboration on high streets.

See also…

For more detailed analysis see our detailed policy briefing on the three manifestos (LGiU members only).

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