LGiU held fringe meetings at the Labour and Conservative Party conferences. In both cases the event was entitled ‘Who governs? Bridging the gap between localism and parliamentary sovereignty’. Janet Sillett reports from the Labour conference event and we will publish another blog soon that focuses on the Conservative event.
- Jonathan Carr-West Chief Executive LGiU
- Cllr Sharon Taylor OBE Leader of Stevenage Council
- Mark Boleat Chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee ( City of London )
- Patrick Diamond Lecturer in Public Policy, Queen Mary University of London
The twin themes of devolution and brexit dominated the fringe – which isn’t surprising as the title of the fringe itself brought the two together – but, also, of course, these two issues are at the forefront of councillors’ minds, along with finance. The three are closely interrelated.
Yet in both the Labour and Conservative conferences the main business in the conference hall rarely touched on local government devolution. Which isn’t good news. There was much more enthusiasm from our speakers and audience however. Though not without concerns and frustrations – the government not wanting to cede control over the process or whether it matters that devolution is messy with little oversight or a framework within which it can take place. Mark Boleat (with an outsiders perspective) wanted to see devolved powers over housing and unemployment and skills but asked whether there needs to be some limits to devolution – would the articulate middle class end up dictating where new homes would go to the detriment of those who need them?
How is devolution linked to Brexit? All of the speakers linked the Brexit vote to feelings of alienation from many voters who didn’t think they had a real say in the running of their areas and who felt distant from a remote Westminster – and an even remoter Brussels. We hadn’t ever got the balance right between the local and the centre which leads to a gap in democratic accountability. Patrick Diamond emphasised this was not recent – it stems from the collapse of traditional industries and areas that suffered huge economic disadvantage. The EU hasn’t been that effective in bringing up deprived areas. The slogan ‘taking back control’ spoke to something very powerful.
So how could devolution begin to meet these complex challenges? How can we build trust in how decisions about our places are taken and seen to be taken where there is a visibility of decisions. Patrick talked about strengthening community cohesion (even more critical after the brexit vote), giving residents a much stronger say and increasing their power over local services. Devolution to local government needs to be translated into power to local people. A view strongly echoed by Sharon Taylor.
But brexit adds a massive layer of complexity and major challenges – the potential funding gap in deprived areas; the possible loss of staff in health and social care; the complete change to the legal framework – and so far little or no strategic planning for dealing with the huge consequences for local government.
What has local government to add to the table? First, of course, it needs to be at the table. Mark pointed out that the City of London is able to do its own thing – with its considerable resources and global offices. But many cities and county areas also have strong links with Europe – they need to maintain those links and in some cases extend them building direct relations with Brussels, and use their influence to increase productivity and attract inward investment.
So although brexit could have a adverse economic impact on all councils, there are opportunities too – central government faces massive challenges – local government, as long as we have the flexibilities and powers needed, has a critical role in meeting those challenges effectively. Central government doesn’t seem to have got that message yet – but local government can make its voice heard loudly and clearly in the vacuum at the centre.
Finally, and completely unsurprisingly, the result of a live online vote showed that 90 per cent of attendees in the room agreed that the views of local government would not be properly represented in the brexit negotiations and 85 per cent thought that power in the UK following brexit would move towards the centre.
Clearly there is a lot to play for.