NLGN Annual Conference 2013: Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP

Speech given at the NLGN Annual Conference 2013 30 January 2013 by Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

It is great pleasure to be here this morning and I would like to take the opportunity of your kind invitation to talk today about what lies ahead for us and for our society and how this will affect the thing that we know and love as local government.

Let’s be straight. This is a very difficult time for our country, for the communities you represent and for politics. The financial crash of five years ago has hit us all hard. Many wonder whether politicians have the answer given what we’ve been through. A lot of people feel the too many decisions are being taken too far away from where they live and work. And in some places and in some minds, there is a crisis of confidence in politics itself.

All this won’t be helped when in April a lot of my constituents on low incomes find they are being hit by the council tax benefit cuts and the bedroom tax; in effect council tax and rent increases. We will all have to deal with the human cost and the financial consequences for people without a lot of money who will be squeezed even further by, as they will see it, people they thought were meant to be helping them.

So my starting point is that we have to recognise where we are. The cuts in funding affecting councils up and down the country are not modest. They are the biggest in my or your political lifetime. They face you as councillors and officers with difficult, often unpalatable decisions. And in some areas the cuts are particularly severe because they are being applied unfairly.

All this is happening at a time of rising pressures, in particular looked after children and social care. Costs here are going up while income is going down. That’s why the much-discussed LGA ‘graph of doom’ is not crying wolf. It is the best assessment of where we are heading if things continue as they are.

That assessment is reinforced by today’s publication by the National Audit Office of its report on the financial sustainability of local government. It is clear that cuts to council budgets are having a direct impact on front-line services, and the Chair of the PAC Margaret Hodge is blunt. She says of the findings about local authorities: “I am alarmed to hear that 12 per cent are now at risk of being unable to balance their books in the future, according to local auditors, with potentially disastrous consequences.”

Now it is no good asking local government to take on this challenge, if at the same time the people you expect to step up and respond are criticised, patronised and belittled. I use these words deliberately, because it seems to me that what is going on reflects a fundamental lack of respect for people who are working very hard to manage in very difficult circumstances.

Systematically talking down local government – cheap hits and low blows – is unpleasant, undermining, and utterly unconstructive, and I think it weakens the cause of localism and ultimately the communities we serve.
It should stop, but I fear it won’t because it is about trying to shift the blame instead of taking responsibility.

Of course councils can and should deliver significant efficiency savings, and that’s exactly what you are doing. It is now a necessity. There are always ways we can serve the public better and cut costs. You know this.

And more will have to be done because despite local government having been described before the election by the Prime Minister as “officially the most efficient part of the public sector”, the Government has chosen to make bigger cuts in council funding than in any other part of the public sector. This making it much harder for councils to find efficiencies without hitting services that communities rely on.

Now, despite all this, I know that with a quiet and steely determination you are getting on with your job.

I’m not going to pretend that there would not be difficult decisions and tough times if Labour were in Government. Far from it, there would be. Austerity is forcing all of us to think in new and creative ways because we simply cannot afford to do things as we have done them before.

It is this new reality that I want to focus on today, not least because it is the context in which the Labour Party’s policy review is taking place.

I think England is too centralised. I think 1200 performance indicators for local government was not the right way to do things. I think we can do much better to tap into and enable the wealth of ideas and innovation that I see in just about every authority I visit or read of.

So as we think about how to give this new localism form and shape, what are the principles that we should be working to? I think there are three questions that need to be asked.

First. At what level should decisions be made?

For every area of policy, we should first enquire – who is best placed to do this? What should be done nationally, locally or in between? What tools do people need and where to get the best result – I am talking here about powers, functions, funding, and transparency – and where should national standards be applied to locally delivered services?

Secondly. How do we make less money go further?

As finances will be very tight, we have to look at total public spending in an area – whether geographical or to do with policy – and ask how it can best be spent, with a clear preference for the centre and the local pooling funding to do things. Money passed down by each Whitehall department should be given as single pots where possible so that decisions can be taken locally about how best to use it for the purpose for which it was given.

Thirdly. Who should take decisions?

I do not think that there is a case or indeed any public appetite for regional government; in other words an additional tier of elected politicians. My argument is very simple – make better use of the elected politicians we already have!

On the structure of local government, any changes should be decided from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. The most exciting development in local government at the moment is the way in which councils are coming together in a way that makes sense to them and their area. The Leeds city region. The Manchester conurbation. The plan that Bournemouth and Poole have put together for economic regeneration.

This movement shows that existing structures can join together in different ways depending on geography or what needs to be done. It’s a really good example of not starting from scratch but instead getting the current system to evolve. Apart from anything else it ensures strong local democratic accountability in taking decisions and spending public money. And as to how that democracy is led – i.e. whether there should be a Council Leader or a Mayor – well that should be decided by people locally.

So, that’s a framework. What might it look like in practice? Let me take two examples: health and social care, and the economy.

I’m sure you have heard about Andy Burnham’s visionary speech last week about whole person care. It was a powerful and compelling argument as to why the system we have at the moment for caring for older people needs to change to provide a better service. After all, every one of us has an interest in this – ageing is sadly a universal experience!

You are rightly warning that, within a decade, councils will be overwhelmed by the costs of care if nothing changes.

Andy is rightly pointing out that for older people, the incentives for care are working in the wrong direction with the pull too often towards hospital and care homes because of the way the funding and the services are organised. Instead of spending a few hundred pounds in the home to help people live there independently – a grab rail, a walk-in shower, someone to help you dress in the morning – we are footing hospital bills in the thousands for people who do not need, or want, to be there. Torbay is leading the way in showing how things can be done differently.

And the question Andy is asking is this. Is it time for the full integration of health and social care?

One budget, one service co-ordinating all of a person’s needs: physical, mental and social. Whole-Person Care. A service that starts with what people want – to stay healthy and comfortable at home – and which is built around them.

If the NHS was commissioned to provide Whole-Person Care, a decisive shift could be made towards prevention.

Now as Andy made clear, any changes would have to be delivered through the existing organisations and structures. Our NHS has no capacity for further top-down reorganisation. This is why local authority Health and Well-Being Boards could come to the fore in undertaking this commissioning, with Clinical Commissioning Groups supporting them with advice.

In other words, local authorities could have a central and increasingly important role. We are keen to get your views on how we can best make this work.

Or take economic development. Last year I spoke to this Conference about the “English Deal” – and made it clear that I want local authorities in all parts of England – counties as well as cities, districts as well as boroughs – to be able to come together to do what they think is right to boost their local economies.

Since then I have been talking to councillors and officers about the powers and freedoms that should come from Whitehall. Just about every Council Leader, I have talked to is desperate to develop their local economy – and we really need growth after last week’s economic figures – and they are thinking hard about how they can play to their strengths. For example, the automotive industry in the West Midlands, and the aerospace industry in a number of English regions.

Just as our politics is unbalanced between the centre and the local, so is our economy. That needs to change too as my colleague Rachel Reeves set out in her IPPR speech earlier this week. She said:“A really effective rebalancing of our industrial development, strengthening and broadening our economy’s productive base, means a radical devolution of power to the communities and businesses who can make it happen.”

That is why powers over planning, housing, training, skills, infrastructure, transport investment and helping to find people work should be part of the role of local authorities, and in particular the new groupings that are coming into being. I’ve lost count of the number of Council Leaders have said to me of the Work Programme ‘I think we could make a better fist of finding people jobs and giving them the skills they need’. And tomorrow Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne will have more to say about the role that councils can play in future in tackling the problem of youth unemployment.

We can see the initiatives that a number of councils have taken to set up apprenticeship agencies, for example, to help small businesses give someone a start. Taking on the paperwork and the liability so that small businesses can take on an apprentice.

It would make much more sense if we decided our priorities for transport investment within our own regions rather than having a system in which every project has to be cleared from Whitehall with all of the time and transaction costs that involves.

There is, I think, a growing consensus in support of this approach, and it includes Lord Heseltine, who set out an eloquent case for cities and communities as the engines of economic development in his recent report. It is time that central government made sure that local government has the tools it needs to do this job.
Why is all this so important?

Because I think local communities do need to take greater responsibility for decisions. Because I do believe that central government, especially in these times, should be embracing what local government has to offer and should be pushing power down to where it should lie.

I am convinced that a profound change needs to take place to boost confidence in what we can achieve for ourselves. We must restore faith in the capacity of people to feel that they can do something. Change things.

We have come to the end of what I call ‘consumerist politics’. We will not meet the challenges that lie ahead if we expect other people to do it for us. If we don’t take on our responsibility.

We need ‘contributory politics’. It is not a very new idea. In fact it’s very old. After all, when we look back at how our communities grew and developed, look back to when poverty, disease and slums scarred our land, what changed that? It was social conscience, civic pride, and collective endeavour – people who did something extraordinary without waiting for a circular from Mr Gladstone or Mr Disraeli.

Where did the libraries, and the parks, and hospitals, and the schools, and houses, and the clean water come from? They came about because of collective will and effort.

And that is exactly the kind of attitude of mind we have to nurture and encourage, with local authorities as the engine and the enabler of the changes people want to see and need to be part of.

It’s the spirit we need to meet the big challenges we see around us – caring for an ageing population, Developing a stronger and sustainable economy, paying a decent living wage, building a lot more social homes, supporting credit unions to overcome the loan sharks and setting up renewable energy generation schemes locally to help reduce people’s bills. There are loads of things that we can do in our communities to make life better.

Now some will say – well that sounds fine in principle but how can we do it? To which I reply – have a look around you. Look at the attitude of mind that is behind the living wage, that has led Sandwell to build two bedroom bungalows so that older people can move and keep a spare bedroom for the grandchildren to come to stay, and that has led Oldham to introduce the Fair Fares bus pass that has cut £5 off the cost of a weekly bus ticket to help workers commute and find jobs. If we can do it in one place, surely this is a source of inspiration to do it in other places.

I want to finish by talking about one recent example of outstanding local leadership that is close to my heart. The Tour de France is the biggest annual sporting event in the world. In 2014, it will start from the centre of my constituency in Leeds and the world’s best cyclists will get the chance over the following two days to enjoy the scenic delights and the gruelling hills of Yorkshire. It will be great for tourism and businesses. And how did it happen? Because Welcome to Yorkshire and Leeds City Council had the vision, the audacity, the sheer nerve to think that they could succeed in bringing the Tour de France to Leeds. And they did, beating Scotland, Barcelona and Florence in the process. And it was done by local effort and not by central government.

This is but one of countless stories that can be told about what communities and the people they elect to represent them can do for themselves when they put their minds to it.

This is local government at its best. This is what local government has done throughout its history. This is how the face of our country changed in ways that were extraordinary at the time but which we now take for granted.

I am for more localism for three reasons.

The time is right.

It’s the way in which we can get the most out of the money we have.

And it is the answer to the most pressing question of our age – do we really believe that we can do something about what faces us.

I am passionate about politics – public service – because I believe in its power to transform lives and communities. Politics is not just about politicians but politicians and people working together. The greatest sense of pride we feel in our lives is when we look at something that we have achieved, and turn round and say to each other. ‘Look what we were able to do.’

We may be short of money but there is one thing we have an inexhaustible supply of – ideas, effort, determination, resourcefulness, and a will to succeed. If we make the best use of all of these I think we can look forward to the future with some hope.

Thank you very much.