The Conservative message, that completing Brexit will allow us to move on and focus on other matters, has resonated with those I have spoken to on the doorstep. But some have been disappointed that the Conservative Manifesto has been cautious over what that will mean (beyond a milder and more plausible spending spree than proposed by Labour). The point has often been made that the “take back control” spirit of 2016 applies to more than Brexit. If so, then surely it would include greater individual freedom and local communities having greater autonomy. “Take back control,” should not merely mean being bossed around by the man in Whitehall rather than the man in Brussels. What would be the implications for local government if the Conservatives win the General Election?
The Conservative Manifesto says:
“Local government is the bedrock of our democracy. We are proud that Conservative councils have led the way in helping keep council taxes low, providing value for money and supporting local communities.
We will ensure that councils continue to deliver essential local services – which is why they received a substantial funding increase in the most recent Spending Round. Local people will continue to have the final say on council tax, being able to veto excessive rises. This does not prevent councils raising more – but it does ensure that they will need to have solid and convincing reasons for doing so.
We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK. Our ambition is for full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and others, so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny. We will publish an English Devolution White Paper setting out our plans next year.
Through our City and Growth Deals we have already delivered more than £9 billion of funding across England, and almost £3 billion to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Through bodies like the Northern Powerhouse, Western Gateway and Midlands Engine we will drive greater levels of foreign investment into the UK, promoting our towns, cities and counties around the world. As part of our plans for full devolution we will also invite proposals from local areas for similar growth bodies across the rest of England, such as the Oxford-Cambridge Arc.
This is an agenda which shows that the days of Whitehall knows best are over. We will give towns, cities and communities of all sizes across the UK real power and real investment to drive the growth of the future and unleash their full potential.”
As a former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson is an instinctive localist. Of course, big public sector infrastructure projects will inevitably tend to go vastly over budget and be eye-wateringly poor value for money. But some kind of regional say on capital spending might provide some kind of check on the vanity.
So far as current spending is concerned, it is worth noting that “austerity” has been illusory for central government spending overall, but genuine for local authorities. Councils have responded well to the challenge by reforming the way they operate and actually achieving higher satisfaction rates for local services. So far as “the final say on council tax” is concerned, the question is, at what point this will kick in. If councils are allowed to get away with increases above inflation it is a pretty weak protection.
On housing supply, the Manifesto grasps the need to woo the Nimbys rather than confront them. It says:
“Crucially, however, we need to make sure homes are built in a way that makes sense for the people already living in the area and for the families moving in.”
How is it to be done? By adopting the agenda of Create Streets. Or as the Manifesto puts it:
“Beautiful, high-quality homes. We will ask every community to decide on its own design standards for new development, allowing residents a greater say on the style and design of development in their area, with local councils encouraged to build more beautiful architecture.”
Regular readers will know I regard the key to making new housing popular is to break with the brutalist past and embrace a beautiful future of neo-classicism. It is to Theresa May’s credit that work on this agenda by the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission is now “oven ready”. The champions of ugliness will be the establishment forces – the planners and architects. They think they know best. The allies of beauty are the people. If people are given the power to choose they will choose beauty.
So far as boosting the chance of home ownership for those in social housing is concerned, what is needed is a right to shared ownership. This should include an initial offer of a free ten per cent stake, in return for taking on responsibility for minor repairs. But the Manifesto is rather feeble and just says:
“We will reform shared ownership, making it fairer and more transparent. We will simplify shared ownership products by setting a single standard for all housing associations, thereby ending the confusion and disparity between different schemes.”
There is also a pathetic comment that “we will evaluate new pilot areas” for the right to buy for housing association tenants. That is a retreat from the full right to buy promised to them in the 2015 Manifesto which still hasn’t been delivered.
The other crucial area is to release more surplus public sector land for housing development. This is not mentioned.
Still, it is better to over-deliver than to break promises.
The quiet revolution of independent state schools (with academies as well as free schools) would continue under the Conservatives. This is the most obvious area of retreat for municipal empires. The great unknown is social care. The plan is to “build a cross-party consensus to bring forward an answer that solves the problem, commands the widest possible support, and stands the test of time. That consensus will consider a range of options…” Will that include taking the role from councils and giving it to the NHS? That would be my guess.
The upshot could be that councils have more money and power in some areas (such as transport and basic local services) but have a diminished role when it comes to schools and social care.
Politically, the most important challenge is to stop the blockage when it comes to supplying more attractive new homes. Should the Conservatives be lucky enough to win on Thursday, it should not be treated as a chance to relax on this imperative. It should be treated as a final chance.
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