At this General Election, local government is at crossroads, with the two main parties offering very different directions for the future of councils and the communities they serve.
The role that councils play in supporting local people means that we must have a government that is interested in serving the many, and not the few.
Labour’s offer to local government at this election is of more funding next year, freedom to build genuinely affordable homes, support to our schools facing a cash crisis and vital support for social care services. As the Leader of a council that has lost more than 60 per cent of its core government funding since 2010, this fully funded offer is exactly where we should be heading. It’s also pleasing to see so many policies that have been tried and tested in Islington – and by other Labour councils across the country – forming key parts of the manifesto.
You need look no further to see the difference between the parties than to consider their approach to a policy pioneered in Islington: Labour would introduce universal free school meals for all primary pupils, helping boost attainment and saving families £500 per child a year. The Conservatives by contrast would scrap free meals and leaving schools high and dry with newly expanded kitchens and locked into catering contracts.
It is fair to say that in the past Labour governments have not always been that forthcoming in moving power away from Whitehall and down to communities. Which is why it is encouraging to see a firm commitment to devolution included in the manifesto, and a promise to devolve new powers over economic development along with the necessary funding. There are also greater powers for communities to help shape and protect their high streets and the things that matter to everyday life, like post offices and independent traders.
It is in housing where Labour is not only listening to local government, but is giving a clear lead, saying ‘get building’. Labour’s plans to build a million new homes in the next 5 years, with at least half being for council and housing association genuinely affordable rents, and guaranteeing Help to Buy funding until 2027, is a bold plan to start tacking the housing crisis. Labour will also remove the threat to end lifetime tenancies in social housing, will scrap the hated Bedroom Tax, and will give greater protections and rights to the growing number of private tenants.
Extending free childcare and providing schools with funding they need to cope with rising cost pressures, as well as letting councils build new school places, shows a Labour Government is committed to supporting future generations. A national care service will be challenging to deliver, but a further £8 billion of funding for social care over the next parliament will allow us to move away from a crisis and towards this ambitious goal.
Ultimately, local government must ask itself which direction we wish to go. For too long, local councils have faced devastating cuts and no answers on social care; but Labour will listen to Town Halls and tackle head-on the issues we all grapple with each day.