The Guardian view on Labour’s devolution plans: beyond ‘levelling up’ | Editorial

Over the years, England’s town halls have become used to being treated with a mixture of hostility, condescension and neglect. During the late 1980s, writing at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s ideological assault on leftwing councils, the political scientist Andrew Gamble warned that her centralising tendencies could pave the way to “the eventual abolition of local government”. In the 2010s, Conservative administrations blithely swung the wrecking ball once more, as punitive austerity hollowed out council budgets to an unsustainable degree.

Sir Keir Starmer’s decision to sit down with England’s metro mayors in Downing Street this week – the first meeting of its kind – was therefore both welcome and significant. Tuesday’s get-together largely amounted to warm words and selfies outside No 10. But Sir Keir’s announcement of a new council of regions and nations formalises a more equal and respectful relationship. It is a genuine statement of collaborative intent. The sense of a step-change was also conveyed by Angela Rayner’s decision to remove Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” slogan from the housing, communities and local government department that she now leads. Rarely has a political slogan generated so many ministerial speeches and column inches, to such little concrete effect.

But beyond the optics and the sense of a fresh start, immense challenges loom as well as opportunities. Sir Keir is right to see greater devolution of powers to local authorities as a means of boosting economic growth – his administration’s overriding priority. Regional and local leaders are far better placed to identify their areas’ requirements, and harness their potential, than ministers and civil servants sitting in Whitehall.

Similarly, plans to extend “trailblazer” powers over areas such as transport, housing and skills will liberate regions to innovate and reform. Moving from ringfenced annual funding rounds to single budget settlements will allow proper planning and joined-up thinking. In all this, Labour is on the right track and making the right noises. With a fair wind, the party’s 11 metro mayors could become invaluable champions and collaborators in a new era of devolution, as the government seeks to restore public services so grievously undermined over the last 14 years.

Sooner or later, however, if a renaissance of municipal England is truly to take place, Sir Keir and Ms Rayner will need to face up to inconvenient truths. Financially, local government is on its knees. If inflation and other pressures are taken into account, the austerity years have reduced council spending power by half. Local revenue-raising powers are circumscribed and limited. Drastic cuts in funding from central government have hit poorer parts of the country hardest. As they struggle to fulfil statutory responsibilities in relation to social care, councils have closed leisure centres and libraries, neglected parks and shuttered advice centres.

During the election campaign, Sir Keir channelled Theresa May, insisting there was “no magic money tree” to deal with this crisis. But a new financial settlement for local government is desperately needed. Without one, there risks being a Potemkin quality to Labour’s devolution programme, and the impact of laudable reforms will be undermined by a crisis of resources.

Rehabilitating intermediate tiers of government, and deepening local democracy, is a civic necessity in an age of profound disillusionment with politics. Labour’s good intentions in this regard are clear. But it must find a way to will the means as well as the ends.


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